donderdag 30 december 2010


The words ‘grief’ or ‘violence’ or ‘pain’ do not belong to the vocabulary of organizations. Because there grown-ups work together based on mutual consent and rational alignment. That’s what I sometimes hear from participants in my workshop Thinking for someone else, in which I – in the footsteps of the philosopher Levinas – regularly use those words, even if we discuss work situations. My answer is that some words may indeed sound strange in the context of organization and management, but that they really can tell us something about that reality. And that time may be ripe for a variety of unusual word connections.

As to that latter thought I feel strengthened by the publication of the book The judge’s new clothes by the Dutch judge Rinus Otte. Because the book calls forth a number of unusual associations. Of judges with misery, of organizations with grief, of management with being pathetic. These unusual connections are there already for some time, so Otte suggests, but something in our minds keeps us from associating the said things with one another.

The association of judges with misery gets profile only relatively recently. Namely, Otte tells us, since judges are locked up in planning and control cycles in which targets are fixed and results are measured. Because much of their work processes are standardized, judges from a center point turned into a link in a chain. They have little grip anymore on the organization of their daily work. The juridical process is planned for them, not by them. The thinking is being done for them, and thus they started to show increasingly dependent behavior. They started to make one another’s lifes a misery and to complain a lot, especially about the workload, says Otte.

That’s pretty miserable indeed, but – according to Otte – no more pathetic than the fate of many other professionals, because the planning and control bureaucracy has raged almost everywhere and made people mellow. That of course makes it no less severe, as the malaise now almost gets the features of a genuine cultural crisis.

The words organization and grief seem to stem from two incompatible vocabularies. Organization stands for ultimate rationality and functionality. There may be some links with the realm of emotions, but these connections are subject to strict censorship. Emotions in that context should invariably radiate positivity and enthusiasm and be about connectedness. The association of organization as a reasonable concept with grief keeps feeling uneasy, but Otte makes clear to what extent that association within the administration of justice is identifiable. The Dutch paper NRC reports that Otte was baffled about the “unhappiness” and the “organizational violence” that he encountered at his court (and, appearing from his quotationmarks, the reporter found it strange words a well in this context).

Something similarly uneasy applies to the coupling of managers and being pathetic. According to the prevailing perception managers are still mainly associated with vigor, coolness and, again, reasonableness. Yet, however often the words energy and charisma and connection may be used in those circles, Otte’s book makes quite clear, according to the NRC, that management of the criminal process is mainly rather tiresome. “Tensions have grown over the last five to ten years” and “What you see is a lot of communication between deaf, people don’t reach each other”.

The interesting question, of course, which lays behind those uncomfortable associations is: what makes our brain to take one kind of associations for granted and to find other kinds of associations odd, even though reality offers us many reasons for such an unusual association to be made? To be continued.

Also see Bauman, Levinas and business ethics

donderdag 23 december 2010


Lately I heard Abram de Swaan in his Thomas More-lecture speak on “The financial regime, the consequences of a modern false doctrine”. It is a pleasure to listen to De Swaan in his double role as scientist and performer. His devastating story about the ridiculous belief of politicians and economists in the ‘discipline of the market’ and its poor results got a welcome reception with me and the rest of the audience.

An important message of De Swaan was: please also ridicule those bankers and executives who imagined themselves to be the best and the brightest. Because if they really are so clever, why did it all go so terribly wrong? And if they really think the market is that important, why do they let themselves be saved for billions by the state? And why then do they pass each other the plum jobs, in closed systems of cooptation? No, the free market is first of all for the others, for subordinates, not for the top.

Let scorn come over those bonus catchers, says De Swaan, and the scorning may be very well left to him. Yet I found De Swaan stronger at those moments when he, in the context of his analysis of the situation, put forward something else. Namely the finding that some parts of the false doctrine have a kind of irresistible attraction. For example the idea that the free market as an invisible hand manages to organize society. Or the complex mathematical models by which risks could be calculated (or be mislaid) and predictions could be made.

De Swaan confessed that he himself in his scholarly work liked to work with mathematical models and that he knows the fascinating charm that may emanate from them. These models, in which everything fits together neatly and logically, can generate such a rush that you truly start to believe that reality is like the models. Even in a free society it can apparently happen hat great minds get in the grip of a false doctrine.

Indeed, I think that's more interesting than scorn. Not only because De Swaan here brings himself into the game, which I certainly appreciate. But especially since he touches on an element that has great explanatory power when it comes to analyzing a stalemate as we have fallen into. It is not just ill will of some greedy bastards, but also the magical effects of logic and mathematical models that have been at work here. Say: the euphoria of thinking, also of thinking in good faith, such as by economic scientists. They, according to De Swaan, through their preoccupation with models and abstractions contributed to the legitimisation of financial malpractice.

Besides explanatory power, the phenomenon of deception by sheer thinking provides a better starting point for a constructive conversation than scorn can offer. There is undoubtedly a lot of greed in the world, but also a lot of well-intentioned illusion. And there's more to talk about the latter - precisely because there are good intentions behind it - than about greed because the latter is equivalent to ill will. And a conversation about ill will immediately will be an allegation.

Scorning the best and the brightest, who have made themselves so ridiculous, may be liberating and that appeared when we listened to De Swaan. But one should be cautious not to get into yes against no and into a fight to the finish. Because De Swaan and his audience will put it off then against “If you're so smart, why aren’t you rich?”, big money’s justification.

donderdag 16 december 2010

Reversal of values

Recently Naima El Bezaz beautifully described her experience of seeing the film Des Hommes et des Dieux by Xavier Beauvois. Her style of description is completely original and authentic but of such a character that I think many Jews can identify with what she writes.

The movie is set in the nineties of the last century and is about a group of French monks who inhabit a monastery in the Algerian mountains. It is the time when Islamist terror groups step up their fight against the secular Algerian regime. They sweep the country, devastating and murdering anyone they regard as enemies: Westerners, Muslims who don’t take Islam seriously enough, Christians. It is soon clear that the monks are going to be a target for the terrorists and that actually it is the best for them to leave the country as soon as possible. Indeed, the Algerian government demands the monks to leave, if only to later have no diplomatic row with France.

But the monks refuse to leave. They continue to do what they have always done: live with the poor local people, supporting them with equipment and medical assistance. The people of the village feel at home in the monastery and the monks take care of them as if they were their children. Leaving the monastery would be tantamount to treason, the monks have to continue their mission of mercy and protection. There will be no happy end.

As this story unfolds in the cinema, El Bezaz describes herself and her feelings while she consumes the film. And then it appears she experiences a reversal of values. At the beginning of the film she is full of sympathy about so much love and selflessness on the part of the monks. She even feels a twinge of envy for those men who manage to generate such warmth and affection for the poor villagers. In the mosque things sometimes may be quite different!

At this point in the film she is still neatly in line with the journalists on the chairs beside and in front of her, who above all seem to be deeply impressed by such amounts of selflessness and charity. They are likely to join the chorus of invariably enthusiastic critics who already made the film receive the Grand Prix at Cannes.

But suddenly she feels a deep anger welling up inside. This happens when the monks after long deliberation decide to stay. But why? Where does that anger come from? It’s all about pure love and selflessness, what objection could one possibly have against that?

Apparently there is a lot to object against that, such is what El Bezaz shows us. The ordinary Algerians, at least the villagers, are living in a crippling fear. They would pay a fortune if only they could leave. “And then there are those French monks who do have the chance to leave and so save their lives, yet choose to stay where they are”. This triggers the anger and disgust of El Bezaz. It is the combination of the naive dog eyes of the monks and their patronizing superior sacrificing themselves for that pitiful mountain folk which she experiences as an example of imperialist thinking.

This description can be read as a debunking of something which is pretty hard to uncover: the violence that lies behind the superiority of complete self-sacrifice. And which is particularly noticeable for those who simply want to bear and continue their own existence. About the vilification of these pursuits by the ‘superior and noble Christianity’ Jews and Israel can have their say.

This has got much to do with Thinking for someone else.

maandag 29 november 2010

Rembrandt's Head

Art can be seen as a movement of detachment. Art that is worthy of the name implies an almost inevitable break with the uterus, a step from one’s comfort zone to come to stand on one’s own. And the power that can emanate from a work of art has a lot to do with that.

A work of art - basically the artist - takes position vis à vis the world. That is, in relation to light that touches us and to sounds that strike us. But also: in relation to others, to inherited traditions, if necessary in relation to sacred cows. Such power can be felt.

In this feature may rely the difference with kitsch. Kitsch emphatically wants to remain in the comfort zone and cherishes the sentiments of the uterus. Kitsch - or rather the kitschist - prefers not to be detached from fear for the risk to come to stand too much on one's own and from fear of the loneliness that comes with it.

The need to continually take position probably explains the connection between art and the occurrence of avant-gardes as at least in the West we know them for the last few centuries. The vanguard, as a group of people who set themselves apart, exemplifies what every true artist wants to do: take position.

That this is not easy to achieve may appear from the fact that belonging to a vanguard or the loneliness of an artistic life sometimes fall into extremes. Then the break is cherished and the romance of isolation is cultivated. Then a new comfort zone is created, rather than art.

But the need to constantly position oneself explains, when it succeeds, something else, namely the rigor that may prevail in the artistic world. A lot of discipline is required to achieve genuine art and that discipline has evolved over centuries into all sorts of strict rules about ideal proportions, composition and the use of color. With concomitant institutions and norms by which people can judge one another.

In Rembrandt's day this regime reigned firmly. Think of the mandatory orientation on classical masterpieces and Italian beauty ideals. Museums may, in their explanations of paintings from that era, still get lyrical about ‘balanced faces’ and ‘ideal Apollonian proportions’ between eyes, nose and mouth of a subject.

If you are aware of that regime your appreciation of Rembrandt may only increase. Because he broke twice. He not only made the break that every good artist makes, that of choosing position in relation to light and color. His paintings also bear witness a of a break with the severity of many of his colleagues.

It are no ideal proportions, no cosmic harmonies, no great reflections of light which he shows in many of his paintings. And especially not when he paints himself. He is not ashamed of his potato nose and his very ordinary face. Indeed, because of the way in which he takes position in relation to himself he does not have to. Therefore, I often cannot get enough of Rembrandt.

Also see Judeo-Christian and Rembrandt's Heads

vrijdag 19 november 2010

Rembrandt's Heads

These are tough times with all those lawyers for and against Geert Wilders. Rembrandt would have known how to handle it. What a pity we miss those beautiful black hats nowadays.

Also see Judeo-Christian and Rembrandt's Head

zondag 14 november 2010


I recently read that in large parts of Africa and Asia the embarrassment to talk about defecation, sanitary facilities etcetera is big. It is a taboo, to the extent that construction of toilets is hardly debatable. The paradox is that dealing with defecation takes place in a much more overt way than is the case with us. Occasionally it is being done on the street, or along the side of the road. And one does not shake left hands.

As openly as that we would rather not have it in the West, actually it is taboo to us. But meanwhile we discussed the subject extensively, almost shamelessly: we thought and talked a lot about toilets, sewerage, hand washing and toilet paper. That’s why all these facilities could be created. And now we feel uncomfortable if somewhere they are missing and people just relieve themselves. But then, these people prefer not to talk about it. So, with whom the inhibitions are biggest?

Whoever plunges into the (brown) matter - so to speak – apparently is less dirty when he emerges than the one who thinks it’s too dirty.

Another paradox. To an extent not displayed by any other civilization the West engaged in the fight against various threats, from floods to disease, from hunger to poverty. All this aimed at the increase of the certainty of life, and successfully so.

Simultaneously the very West seems more and more in the grip of fear and uncertainty. But these do not look so much like fear of fysical threats or deficits. These uncertainties are mainly socio-cultural in nature. People experience a vague feeling of being lost, of loneliness, anonymity and crumbling communities. People fear a social decline. Whereas our lives’s quality is better than ever.

Whoever, for fear of the threats of the elements, counters them successfully and creates certainty, comes out more frightened than he was when he started off.

This paradox fits in in Levinas’ descriptions. The latter speaks about the il-y-a and by that he means the terrifying indifference of the universe that may beat us with physical disasters, want and disease. Levinas will, in response to that, see the struggle of man against such threats as a laudable effort to remain upright against the terrifying il-y-a.

At the same time - Levinas says - in the tamed, safe society the il-y-a will keep returning. But it returns in its veiled variation, which means: in the shape of loneliness, dull bureaucracy or feelings of senselessness. Against this background Levinas positions the encounter with the Other. This encounter is manifested there in its full strength and may, in his opinion, serve as a new source of meaning.

donderdag 28 oktober 2010

Plato at the workplace

In some of my previous messages I spoke about Plato and the impact of his dualism on Christianity and on education. But also in organizations his ideas are established quite firmly.

The Platonic privileging of the head over the body, of the spiritual realm over the physical realm that currently is playing tricks with the churches and Christianity, also exerts its negative influence in the workplace. This manifests itself in the preference of many organizers (managers, consultants) for a strict separation of policy and operations, think-work and do-work. And coupled to that separation it shows itself in a higher social status and higher financial rewards for the first and an underestimation of the second.

This situation in my view explains a lot of the discontent which may be observed in workplaces. Indeed, there the real added value of organizations is being created, but quite often managers think what is happening there is too trivial for serious attention. They prefer to confine their attention to the broad outlines, also because that’s more prestigious.

Yet in that respect a turnaround seems to be noticeable and that has much to do with the automation and computerization that take place anywhere. The many failed IT projects make it increasingly clear that the traditional management approach, invariably with a certain disdain as to the details of implementation, might be the cause of the failures. After all, if you're automating your processes and you limit yourself to the big picture without having precise knowledge of the operational requirements, you will easily create monsters of dysfunctionality.

So you need to know precisely what is happening at the workfloor. And of course the manager himself does not have to know all the details. But he must understand the importance of that knowledge and take care that it be gathered. This necessity in itself is a break already with thinking just broadly, in terms of strategic concepts and ideas. It is a (re-)valuation of the empirically concrete and hence of the workplace. Not really Plato’s cup of thea.

Within labor organizations therefore a self-correcting mechanism seems in place against the Platonic dualism. In politics this is less clear. Sometimes one reads optimistic stories about the possibilities of using the Internet and other social media for creating more and more direct forms of participation. There are times I believe so too, yet meanwhile I doubt whether that will work.

By definition, politics is about measures on a large scale for people at a distance. This requires thinking in broad outlines and it limits the possibilities for attention to the detailed outcomes of policy. I recently read about the ability of Americans to organize large scales in a small scale way. Perhaps that might offer opportunities to counter inappropriate Platonism in politics.

zondag 10 oktober 2010

La trahison des clercs

As openly expressed as recently by the Dutch Reverend Bas van der Graaf one does not find it easily. When well-educated smart people come to church, according to him, then this is for simplicity and for having something to hold on. They live in a complex, hectic world and their greatest need is: quiet. That’s what they look for in the church and then they do not want to be treated to difficult topics. They're not in for challenging thought.

Indeed, they have enough of that already, says Van der Graaf. And I agree with him, I may watch in wonder how much thought and ingenuity is being invested in financial products, legal acquisition structures, scientific research, audio equipment and even football formations.

And apparently then it’s all used up. “Highly qualified church-goers don’t like lectures on difficult topics”. They intuitively know very well that the world is bigger than what they do in their jobs, and they try to make space for that surplus, but please let that cost no additional mental effort.

This attitude is nothing new in Christianity. On the contrary, it stands in a tradition in which silent contemplation is more valued than sharp, substantial debates; in which submission and simplicity are “celebrated”; and in which the idyll of monastic communities should not be disturbed by critical reflection on potentially unhealthy tensions within.

In the last resort, moreover, that tradition does not allow to question the possibly shaky nature of its own foundations. Of course one may have reasons to take that position, namely the reasons Van der Graaf adduces for this: he and his fellow highly educated wish to have quiet in the house. But intellectually spoken one pays a price for ones rest.

This refusal cannot as easily be reconciled with intellectual acuteness as Van der Graaf suggests when he says that of course some things should not be meddled with. Compared to this the Remonstrant pastor Leegte, in an answer to Van der Graag, is a lot brighter. “If only one of my braincells is not allowed to participate in my work as a pastor”, he says, “then I’ll look for another job”. That very braincell might well have problems with the "realities" of Van der Graaf, such as the crucifixion, resurrection, Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit.

The refusal to use that one braincel is of course everybody’s own prerogative. And by that refusal you even may attract very dedicated people with brains into your church, as Van der Graaf says. But I am afraid the internal intellectual debate will not easily rise above the average level. Really critical questions about our living together, critical reflection which directly affects our professional behavior, all that remains half-baked. That flawed intellect was once referred to as “la Trahison des Clercs”. More recently - and with better answers than Benda - Huub Oosterhuis referred to that issue by asking the question: “If you are so smart, why don't you think more about how we live together?”

zaterdag 4 september 2010

Wonder or bewilderment

Does philosophy start with wonder or with bewilderment?

It is quite accepted and respected to view philosophy as starting in wonder. The wonder for example which is expressed in Leibniz’s and Heidegger’s question which asks "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Or in Kant's awe at the starry sky above him and the moral law within him.

In this wonder easily a kind of adoration and affirmation slips in. How fantastically orderly it's all created, isn’t the world amazingly pretty alltogether! An echo of this traditional appreciation of wonder we heard recently with the award of a prestigious Dutch cultural award to Charlotte Mutsaers: it was the reward for the wonder, the enchantment, the candour, the enthusiasm.

I never liked that cliché, I think it is not critical enough and it does too little justice to the chaos and indifference of the world around us, including creation in its primeval purity. And that may explain why a lot of philosophy felt to me as not being relevant, although I may be a quite philosophical mind.

I feel more akin to Theodore de Boer, when he says thinking emerges from bewilderment, or discomfort. The world around us hardly justifies the pious wonder and praise many traditional philosophies and, of course, traditional religions tribute to the intelligent design of the cosmos. I associate that wonder and praise mostly with people in a luxury position. With people who, at a safe distance from the noise of the street and the hectic world can surrender to contemplation which creates its own fascination and beauty.

Actually, it does not have to be either/or. Intermediate positions between bewilderment and wonder are possible. Thus the philosopher Daan Roovers affirms that philosophy begins with wonder. But with her this wonder is not the romantic adoration about the skies. She refers to the amazement about the many opinions she encounters. These arouse astonishment and make her wonder: could I be mad? How do I get the ideas I have, do others have them too, are they true because of that or do we live in a collective illusion? That really sounds a lot more critical than breathless admiration.

And then there is the intermediate position of Wislawa Szymborska. It seems as if in her poem ‘Inattention’ she opts for the sweet romantic approach, namely the one of the decent wonder about everyting existing: "I've lived a whole day without amazement". But on closer inspection there appears to be rather question of bewilderment: "The world could pass for an insane world, but I only used it for everyday use”.

Lately I catched myself in having, beside bewilderment, more wonder about some things than I've always thought I could have. For example I may be fascinated by the sound of a tone, or by a sunbeam. That such things exist! Perhaps these are signs that I become a bit calmer, or more balanced? Could be. If only it will not take the form of decent, uncritical, almost Catholic "assentment to all that exists".

donderdag 19 augustus 2010

The kick of connection

The attraction of the word 'connection' is huge. And actually that applies to all words which come a bit near to it, such as communication, teamwork, directness.

Not for nothing these words are so often used to capture people. Not just in personal ads, but also in recruitment ads or reorganization plans. Apparently the need for being connected is high.

And for connecting. That appeared recently at a meeting for employees of the municipality of Amsterdam. At that occasion there were eight types of employees listed, each with its own qualities, which the city needs to function properly. These types included the 'networker' and the 'connector'. When subsequently the employees were asked to classify themselves into one of the types, the networker and the connector, together with the 'playmaker', scored by 75 percent of the points. The ‘finishers’ got no further than one and a half percent.

In Amsterdam nonetheless we know quite a few situations in which those connections are accidentally not in place, and not only with respect to the North-South metroline. Then we appoint coordinators or communication experts or social innovators. They, already by the sheer magic of their function names, respond to the need, even if this is just for a short time. In reality these solutions often lead only to more bubble blowing instead of connection.

The need for connection seems to have a physiological basis. I regularly read articles about the functioning of the brains in which the health of the brain is associated with the degree to which parts of the brain connect with one another. It appears that depression can be countered by removing hitches in the connections between braincells and that older people remain sharper when they continue to train their brains to create links.

I am inclined to believe that. The tying together - in a sensible way - of elements which in first instance are foreign to one another is stimulating. But in organizations you better don’t do that by primarily talking a lot about it, as in Amsterdam is the case a bit too much.

You better just do it. Literally. With a simple click I can connect one department of my work to other departments, through information which flows from the one to the other. And always based on a discussion between representatives of both departments. Each connecting click gives me a kick each time again.

zondag 1 augustus 2010


Does it actually seep through, even only a little bit, this statement by Erdogan last month that the Kurdish rebels will "drown in their own blood"? In Israel already for a long time they cann’t use this kind of language anymore - and rightly so. But they surely will think that sort of thing when another rocket comes down or another military post is attacked.

And what have we heard about the fact that Egyptian troops in April have pumped gas into a cross-border tunnel to the Gaza Strip, killing (according to Hamas officials) four Palestinians? Little.

The imbalance in media coverage will have to do with the high density of journalists who specifically follow Israel and with the intense media coverage on that subject, not least also by Israeli media.

But if so, would not it be good to follow with that same intensity what other countries do with their minorities or threats? About the retaliatory measures against the Kurds by the Turkish army my newspaper does not manage to go beyond reporting that the Turkish Air Force bombed targets in Iraqi Kurdistan. But whether actually the massacre came off as intended, we do not know.

I would indeed like to have heard more about it. Irrespective of the motif for my curiosity - whether it is because I want to further peace or to promote the legitimate right to self-defence - I would like to know exactly what happens.

Yet it is nice that reports that the majority of Israeli Jews opposes a minaret ban.

zondag 25 juli 2010

Holy fire

Some ideas are so good that you spontaneously think: everyone should endorse this. For example the idea of loving ones neighbour. You'd almost want to oblige everyone to adopt that idea. Nobody could possibly disagree with that.

Why such a thing yet goes wrong? And wrong it went, no doubt about that. Not because Christianity did not bring us a lot of good as well, but the balance of two thousand years Christianity contains simultaneously such an amount of Crusades, Inquisition and Jews hate that you're left full of bewilderment wondering: didn’t it all start with charity?

Probably then the problem is not in the latter question, it is more likely to be found in the sentence: “everyone should endorse this”. Because in saying that we are taken over by ideas, to the point at which we become violent. Then, with all our good ideas, we miss the bend. That's what I think happened with Christianity: it missed the bend.

So 'Everyone should endorse this' is a dangerous idea, because coercion is, so to say, already ingrained in it. The desire, which is so natural, to want to roll out a good idea to anyone is not innocent, the quest for universality of ideas is problematic. Modest restriction of ideas to those who also happen to feel that way may be a great virtue. Without the debate on those ideas being abolished.

That restriction of ideas to one’s own circle is, I believe, a merit of the Jewish tradition. And that merit does not appear out of the blue. Judaism is familiar too with the holy fire and with the desire for a world-wide Messianic time when the lion and the lamb lie together peacefully. But it also knows the would-be prophets and pseudo-messiahs who wanted to realize the dream immediately and to force utopia. Having learned from these often disastrous episodes the rabbis have become cautious in their dealings with prophecy and utopian visions. They tried to canalize messianic claims.

Apart from that the question is whether all fire that burns in religions is that holy indeed, or of a nature that one spontaneously gives or expects approval. As religion scholar Erwin Jans recently said: any religion also has a dark core that refuses to be enlightened. Think of all unsavory stories in the Jewish Bible, the blood thirst of the crusaders and violent passages in the Koran. If that dark side connects with the already compelling ‘good ideas’, distress may be immense.

That makes it important, according to Jans, that religions incorporate into their teachings, schools and institutions moderation and delay mechanisms to keep a check on both the light and the dark fire. Because holy fire is always totalitarian. Jans assigns that dampening function to theology: its task essentially is the domestication of sacred violence by reflection on religion.

I must say, understood this way I suddenly understand what theology might be. I've never been able to situate theology as an intellectual genre. It functioned as a pseudo-critical activity that would accord a scientific nature to what never could become science. But theology understood as canalizing dangerous but also valuable fire, such is an important intellectual task and perhaps very necessary as well.

zaterdag 5 juni 2010


Stultifying and oppressive, these are since the nineteenth century rather common characterizations of the straitjacket into which our regulated bourgeois culture constrains us. We control our affairs fairly well, but that straitjacket constricts us and sometimes threatens our joy of living, energy and creativity. The gray veil of a tough labour rhytm and mirroring office buildings would sometimes suffocate our soul.

This explains why, also since at least the nineteenth century, there were so many deliberate efforts to escape the constriction and boredom. Romantic music could serve that goal and compelling novels played a major role. It is not accidental that the novel as a genre from that time experienced an unprecedented boom, while frequently the regulated life and boredom themselves were the subjects (think of Madame Bovary or Oblomov). But also the rise of the sports may be related to it and maybe even the incidentally occurring enthusiasm for war and violence.

In our family we used to have our own kinds of escape. One was the large supply of money. That gave us a big house and a big garden, containing even a "paradise" with a pond and feasants and peacocks. And it permitted us an exuberant lifestyle that could keep the greyness at some distance.

A second form of escape was through religious transcendence. However well cared for our material life might be, the spirituality of ‘another, deeper reality’ never was far away. There were ascetically living reverend uncles and pious aunts and my mother loved meditation and study. Also in the table conversations the 'higher' world got attention regularly, usually contrasted against the 'lower' material world. Very dualistic and pulled apart indeed, but it was there.

And then there were the "soldiers", a table ritual which was carried out at the end of festive meals for birthdays and such. It was a question of hammering with your hands and fists on the table in order to produce as much noise as possible. For maximum effect first the glasses, serving spoons and cutlery were placed on the plate edges so they could well rattle. My father then announced the coming of the soldiers who had decided to convey their birthday congratulations. If you listened well, you could hear them coming in the distance, and so it was because he hit his hands gently on the table in a regular rhythm and everyone followed him in that. You could hear them coming closer, the hand slaps became stronger. Until at once they were there, then you could get loose banging your fists on the table, with maximal noise, for a few minutes. Then it had to still be finished, the soldiers went back, hand strokes became softer again, until the soldiers were back in the barracks.

This ritual was carried out family-wide, and not just for the kids. Generations back someone in the family must have experienced the irresistible urge to break out from the formal, regulated atmosphere to which at that time dinners were subjected. The ceremonious rigidity must have felt like a straitjacket, and the soldiers as an escape from it. Is it strange that finally I end up with a philosopher whose first really original book was titled: "On escape"?

See also Il-y a

donderdag 27 mei 2010

Emergency Shelter

Fugitives of whom the appeal for asylum has been declined by Dutch courts can not always be removed from the country. They then often land up, right from the Centre for Asylum seekers, in the Dutch streets. Municipalities feel themselves called upon to provide them emergency shelter. The Minister of Justice, charged with the task of implementing the Aliens Act, prohibits them to do so. Judges on the contrary oblige local authorities to indeed provide shelter.

Is not this a perfect subject on which one, on the basis of Levinas, should be able to say something sensible? Because this is exactly about the Other, if not in the shape of the Widow and the Orphan, at least then in the guise of the Alien?

But what, based on Levinas, should one say then?

Some, including the British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, believe that taking seriously Levinas can mean but one thing. Namely, that our legislation actually is immoral, that our bureaucracy through the adage ‘rules are rules’ is amoral and that true justice can be found only on one side: that of the victim, in this case the asylum seeker. The absoluteness of the appeal of the stranger rids our law and its practice of all ethical quality. Justice in this case relies on rebellious councils and on aldermen who keep their back straight.

Others point out that the absoluteness of the appeal of the Other in Levinas is accompanied by another motive: that of the third person, which in its turn is the other of the other. And that third person refers to the totality of all thirds, the whole of society with its institutions, jurisdiction, immigration laws and deportation centers. So here Levinas’ thinking establishes an actually impossible connection: that between the absoluteness of the individual appeal and the importance of good institutions.

Personally I think that this latter, complex interpretation of Levinas does most justice to his thinking, as well as to the complex reality in which we live. On the one hand there is the demand for help from the Other, of which Levinas does not stop stressing its absoluteness. On the other hand there are the dangers of an attracting effect and of unequal treatment of asylum seekers, in short, the interests of an ordered society of all third parties which according to Levinas must be taken into account as well.

In concrete terms this position means the following: the authorities should do what they have been appointed for to do, but whoever - spurred on by the encounter with an applicant – feels he has to, must diverge from the lines the authorities have set out. And the authorities may very well take notice of that resistance.

For those who want one hundred percent ethical purity, like Bauman, such a position cannot be but unsatisfactory. I for myself however do sympathize with it. I roughly end up at the position the newspaper Trouw held in its commentary. "Sometimes there are individual emergencies (...) The occasional provision of emergency shelter really does not jeapardize the whole edifice".

It is striking how important in this commentary is the role of relativizing words such as 'occasional' and 'sometimes'. This is eminently pragmatic vocabulary and it raises the question to the position of Levinas among fellow philosophers. Because these in general are fond of unequivocality and universal validity of statements, and not of contingency. See for a discussion of that question my website.

See also A Real Shame and Levinas and egoism

vrijdag 21 mei 2010


The Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan once coined the term 'anti-Israelian enthusiasm'. This term aptly reflects the phenomenon that activism for the Palestinian cause in some cases is accompanied by lashing out at Israel in a hardly disguised lascivious way.

This phenomenon recently appeared in a number of news items. There was for instance the report about the Kairos document, a cry for help from Palestinian church leaders. This originally Arabic document was recently translated into Dutch and one of the translators made the text sharper than the original was, especially when it comes to punishing Israel. In his reflection on this, he says explicitly that he might have been too enthusiastic, too involved.

Further two Dutch politicians are allowed, in the newspaper Trouw, without any objection to assent fully to the experience of freedom of a suicide bomber at the moment he blows up himself along with a number of Jews. Because "in a situation of total absence of freedom suicide attacks can be an expression of freedom". It was not clear, incidentally, whether this experience of freedom had to do specifically with blowing up Jews or whether an Iraqi in Baghdad who takes ten compatriots with him to death reaches the same level of self-realization.

And Gretta Duisenberg, the widow of Europe’s former central banker, said in a recent interview she thinks ‘anti-Semite’ is becoming almost an honorary title. In the same interview she also tells when she started to focus on Israel. "I was occupied with all kinds of conflicts: Bangladesh, Nicaragua, South Africa, Argentina. But when the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) against Israel started in 2000, I said to my husband, Wim Duisenberg: Now it's over, now I go work for the Palestinians".

Such a sentence is interesting. For how is this kind of choices being made? I don’t mind anybody calling Israel a rogue state, but it should be coupled with the annotation that there exist in the world fifty or hundred of such states. With casualties, both internally and externally, that are a factor of ten or more higher. What then makes someone to wholly, and with a kind of obvious pleasure, sink one’s teeth into precisely the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

Of course, I understand that, if you care about the fate of all those people who are less fortunate than you are, you still cannot get involved in everything. One needs to focus, so apart from people who will focus on Sudan or Nicaragua or the Western Sahara, there will be people who focus on Israel. But that does not make the question less interesting how such a choice comes about. And especially why it is often accompanied by a furtive kind of pleasure. Where does that special passion come from?

Perhaps it has to do with the feeling of breaking a taboo.

See also Irritating

donderdag 22 april 2010

Truly together

It is fairly popular with companies to present themselves in commercials as top performing symphony orchestras. With employees who are fully tuned in to one another, a perfect collective timing, a visionary conductor and of course resounding (financial) results. The orchestra as a metaphor for excellent corporate performance.

I always find that annoying. Not because I don’t enjoy the artistic creations that are to be heard through the symphony orchestra. Indeed, most of them are great monuments of culture. I almost die in the beauty of a well performed symphony of Beethoven or Mahler.

What’s annoying about those ads is that in them the orchestral playing together is presented as something special and exalted. While I think the orchestra as a model of cooperation is entirely outdated. It is in fact a military organization, dating from the eighteenth century. With a leader who can visibly fully express himself and gets one hundred percent space for initiative and flow, along with a number of sometimes solo-performing key players and finally a lot of bowing foot-soldiers.

In the world of music this situation has, according to the violinist Gordan Nikolic, led to collections of excellently performing artists of consistent quality, who nevertheless produce mediocre or boring music. In his view that has to do with a shortage of space for reflection and imagination with those musicians. And this in its turn is, I think, all about the hierarchical and rigid structure of a traditional symphony orchestra.

I infer this from an interview in which Nikolic states his preference for a certain democratic dynamics within groups of musicians. Nikolic is the artistic director of the Dutch Chamber Orchestra, but he leads that from the concertmaster chair. He emphatically does not want to be a conductor, because he values "the collective conscience of a group he belongs to" as much more important. "Have fun" Nikolic calls out to his orchestra at the beginning of a rehearsal. He even proposes to someday give a concert without any rehearsal beforehand because that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. Of course this includes the risk that at a time such a concert may completely founder.

Instead of a working situation where orchestra members ask him "What do you want from us" he managed to create an atmosphere in which all together tell a story. To have something like that in an ordinary labor organization seems to be very nice to me, but the reality in most cases looks more like a traditional symphony orchestra. In this respect, the metaphor of the commercials is still not that wrong at all. The only thing is: don’t present it as an ideal model.

zaterdag 17 april 2010


Happy Hour in London Docklands, a first spring-like Friday. In front of the pubs and on the terraces along the Thames groups and couples of men and women stand drinking and chatting. They seem busy with evaluating the past day or week, or perhaps themselves.

This kind of finishing the week looks like a purely British affair. While earlier that day - at the university, on the bus, in West End – I found myself in the midst of a fairly representative reflection of the population, at this happy hour there may be some Indian and African types around, but certainly no Muslims. Of course not.

But what does this mean? This means that the integration between Muslims and non-Muslims may advance quite well but that it will stop where the consumption of alcohol comes into play. Whether you assess the latter as positive or negative, it plays an important social role.

This observation certainly applies to the Netherlands too, yet in London it foists itself more forcefully on me because there everything is more pronounced. The Muslim community in London is much bigger and more publicly present than it is in the Netherlands. And the sizes of the beer and wine glasses are two or three times as large as ours. And therewith the exuberance associated with the consumption of alcohol as well as with its abuse and its socially disruptive impact.

Maybe a good outcome of increasing Muslim integration is going to consist in a more moderate alcohol consumption.

But to completely eliminate alcohol does not seem desirable to me. That would be a shame of that exuberant atmosphere along the Thames. And frankly, I myself benefit from a couple of drinks for getting my thoughts a bit smoother, and for promoting my self-evaluation. I fancy.

donderdag 15 april 2010

Blowing Bubbles

For too long I have let the idea be foisted on me that thoughtfulness or philosophy is something unworldly, a sort of noncommittal blowing bubbles. Only the quantity and speed of delivered action would testify of maturity. But this is not true, I know now.

Of course, unworldly philosophers exist. But it is only in respect of their playing field that they differ from the financial whizkids who saddled us with billions of debt. Or from busy executives who hardly can be said to live normal lifes. Those bankers and managers easily measure up to unworldly philosophers, when it comes to unworldliness.

Yet common perception tends to assign to groups such as bankers and managers more effectiveness than to the group of philosophers. That has to do with the mixing up in common language of the word ‘action’, however unfocused it may be, with effectiveness. And that is no longer sustainable. Because we may perhaps perish in the amount of thoughtless action. To this area apparently applies that things are not always what they seem to be. Words and their meanings are not always adequate to reality. In particular, the words 'effective' and 'unworldly' are ripe to be detached from their usual associations.

Perhaps we knew that already for some time, but the new thing is that even within management it has become more difficult to maintain the old dichotomy in common language. What I note, for example, is that good managers are dealing nowadays with something philosophical like semantics. The use of ICT is forcing them to be very precise in the meaning of words, or at least to be able to value that kind of exactness. Because if you neglect that, any logistics and control system that you order to be build will make the confusion still bigger than it already was. So, deliberate reflection in this area is clearly more effective than display of decisiveness.

The same applies to reflection by managers about what it means for their employees to work in an organization. This kind of reflection appears to pay off in the sense that people often respond well to it and perform and innovate better. So these reflexive managers are simply more effective.

Therefore, what makes a person unworldly or not is not attributable any longer to the difference between action and lack of action, decisiveness and shyness. Rather it is the difference between meaningful action and senseless action.

Maybe it's the difference between Obama, who knows to await his time, and Sarkozy. The latter thought himself to be rather resolute when by presidential decree he prohibited French aid airplanes to take off from Haïti’s airport when they were not completely loaded with victims of the earthquake. The airport got completely blocked up.

So, who is blowing bubbles after all?

Also see Go with the flow

zaterdag 27 maart 2010

The End of Times

One may wonder, in response to the previous blog post, whether there I perhaps apply double standards. Why do I find it interesting that Herman Philipse qualifies the Christian reinterpretation of the end of times as cheating, while I appreciate the revision by professional historians, for example concerning the history of Israel, as a sign of a scientific attitude? What is the difference between the two revisions? Don’t they both testify of advancing understanding and therewith of an open and actually modern approach to reality?

About the latter I'm not so sure. For me, in making revisions and changing images, it is very important to know by which motive that is inspired. Is it in order to rescue an Idea or an Ideology (which I think is dubious) or only because the existing image is in conflict with certain empirical findings and hence with experiences of people (which I think is nicely empirical).

The abandoning by Christianity of the expectation of a soon end of times is, in my view, an example of the first mentioned kind of reinterpretation. In it the original central notion is maintained: that of a divine Plan which, after the salvation work of Christ, provides a logical plan-completion in the guise of the end of the world, that’s to say of Doomsday. In itself keeping that idea intact may be quite harmless, but it gets complicated if meanwhile empirical reality retains its function of supporting that idea. Because to the extent Doomsday fails to occur, one has to do more and more violence to empirical reality to ensure that the latter remains consistent with the Plan.

The historian Hugenholtz expresses this in response to the sixth century bishop and historywriter Gregory of Tours as follows: "The past and also the often lovingly described present is subservient to the future, also proves the correctness of expectations of the future. The past and the writing of history are at the service of the expected youngest day, they seem to determine that youngest day, seem to open possibilities for calculating the exact time of the youngest day”.

So, reality here has the function of providing proof. And that role was not kept limited in the Christian tradition to historical reality, also physical nature began to be examined for signs of evidence, with a view on the positioning of man in the divine Plan.

If faith stimulates the empirical sciences but at the same time assigns to the empirical the function of providing proofs for its theology, then two things happen. In the first instance, the sciences will come to flourish because of that stimulus. But in the second instance the specific dynamics of science, with the critical cognitive attitude that belongs to it, leads to resistance against its position of subordination to faith. Science then may revolt against truth claims of faith in the empirical field and dissociate itself from it. In this phase, I believe, the Western Christian world finds itself since the Enlightenment.

For a comparison it is interesting to iuxtapose to the Christian scheme the relationship between faith and the empirical in Judaism. In the Jewish tradition, empirical science never expanded as enormly as in Christianity. Reality in Judaism has never had to the same extent the function to provide evidence for the correctness of a revealed Plan. The fact that contemporary Israeli settlers interpret their annexation successes as proof of God’s will in accordance with his Plan is therefore a relatively new, and in my opinion not welcome development in Judaism.

It is decidedly not the case that in Judaism traditionally there was no Plan. It was and is very present there indeed, and may even be called the Mother of All Plans. But, as to the content of the Plan, one could not do much more than speculate about it. Therefore new thoughts about the Plan could relatively easily develop when events gave cause for that. And there was no lack of occasions or crises. Thus, history is a form of digesting and coming to terms with the past. For this purpose history needs not to be practiced in an exact way. The faith did not depend on empirical vicissitudes, however difficult it was to interpret them. It just was the way it was, it was identity.

Thus in the above the distance has become clear which separates both Christianity and Judaism from scientific historiography. Reinterpretations in the historical sciences are ideally only about empirical reality. Unlike in Christianity in the historical sciences the core of your beliefs may change because that core ís the image of empirical reality, nothing more and nothing less. And unlike Judaism scientific historiography attaches big value to exactness of research with no other purpose than making a credible reconstruction of the past.

Large differences therefore, all in all.

See also Mission completed

vrijdag 19 maart 2010

History as an exact science

The Dutch religion basher Herman Philipse is not one of my favorite thinkers, but lately I heard him speak on the slipperiness of a lot of religion on which I could agree with him. He talked about the philosophical school of the logical positivists and explained that they view religious statements as impossible. That's to say, meaningful religious statements. Because, they and Philipse say, propositions are only meaningful if they are empirically decidable. So you have to be able to test on the basis of observable phenomena whether a statement is true or not. If you can not perform such a test those statements have no meaning.

When you claim a statement to be true, the question is, according to the logical positivists, to formulate it in such a way that the statement is verifiable. You can do that by adding specifications. For example by indicating, in making a prediction, as precisely as possible the phenomenon you expect to occur. If indeed it occurs then you're right, otherwise not. At least this provides clarity.

However, religions generally do not pretend to offer that kind of clarity. And as they don’t have such pretension they don’t bother so much when Philipse reproaches them unclarity or meaninglessness. There are different kinds of meaning, those religions say. So they don’t háve to worry about his criticism.

But Philipse also pointed out - and I found that interesting - that sometimes religions dó claim to make true statements about physical phenomena. He mentioned as an example the predictions of early Christianity, among other places reflected in the letters of Paul, about a soon end of the world. The end was expected to occur within a generation. So, here a specific, rebuttable statement is being made, which meets the requirements which according to logical positivism may be posed to propositions. And so appeared, because the world did not finish. So the statement was refuted by reality.

But, says Philipse, Christianity was not a good loser. People preferred not to dwell too long on this refutation of the prediction and instead they switched to another register. Namely the register of unearthly meanings. And even though I believe that these may have their own legitimation, I understand very well that to Philipse such a maneuver feels like cheating. Especially since after this first register change the switching between registers continued. The claim to be able to designate God's signs in the observable reality remained and we partly owe the flowering of Western science to that pretension. But, on occasion, that claim could be traded in for the idea that the Real Truth absconds from earthly dimensions.

The interesting thing about this is that it reveals a fundamental orientation of Christianity: it is about truth, and in that orientation towards truth empirical reality plays - sometimes - the role that reality plays for the logical positivists: to provide proof for propositions. However, when such proof cannot be provided, in Christianity the empirical gets a subordinate place and appears to be of only superficial significance. And that’s precisely contrary to what the logical positivists thought was right.

And different also from what historians want to do. Because in historical science, carried out properly, findings matter. The reconstruction of the past can change, based on new findings and insights, and even fundamentally so. This is shown for example in the historiography of the Second World War or with the New Historians in Israel about the creation of the Jewish state. From this perspective it is really strange, in fact, that logical positivism is associated primarily with the natural sciences. For in historiography the empirical matters substantially. Isn’t that what we call ‘exact’ indeed?

woensdag 27 januari 2010

Out of place

It may have its charm sometimes, to be completely out of place. To use words and phrases which for the listener feel like not appropriate to the activity or the conversation that is going on. And not because you do not understand what that activity or conversation is about, but because you very consciously want to say different words and phrases. Levinas did so in his expositions with other philosophers, because he wanted to introduce new language into philosophy.

I myself try to do so in the workshop Thinking for someone else. One of the observations of that workshop is that the language spoken in organizations often ignores fundamental experiences of employees. In line with that observation I talk about the ‘violence’ that organizers thus do to their employees. And about the ‘injury’ being done that way and about the ‘sorrow’ of people who suffer from it.

Sometimes I note that for some participants of the workshop all this is too much. Come on man! We are talking about organizations and about labour relations to which reasonable people have committed themselves completely voluntarily! That requires another vocabulary, namely of professionalism, reasonableness, maturity. And if we really want to do something ethical or moral in organizations, we can do so through moral codes and procedures.

A problem is that the latter do not seem to have much effect. Procedures do not generate inspiration, however widespread the indignation is about bonus hunters and dirty tricks. “That should not be allowed” people say, and then take resort to procedural language, to standards of decency and legislation. They keep themselves out.

In earlier days there used to be a richer language to talk with each other about such things, says ethicist Theo Boer. For within the denominationally compartimentalized groups of those days there was a certain consensus about the good life. This offered a kind of shelter, and because of that words could be used that are adequate to morality. After the collapse of the compartimentalized society just a kind of hull morality is left, an almost technocratic minimum for all, in which even words like respect and tolerance may soon become empty slogans or sometimes commands.

I understand what Boer means: morality should be talked about, one should have the opportunity to come up with stories, and one should be able to collide with one another. But I don’t share his nostalgia for the past, because within the one time denominations a lot of stories appeared to be not welcome indeed, such as those of gays or divorced people. The minimum hull moral may still feel for many of them as a liberation.

What remains to be considered is that within the denominationally compartimentalized system words were used which, according to philosopher Edith Brugmans, you can not do without if you want to talk about morality: “Moral words like pain and sacrifice I do not often hear anymore”. In this domain there is in her view a big vocabular deficiency, because one does not manage with just procedural language.

Hence the idiosyncratic language of my workshops. I think there is no other option for us than to learn to use words like ‘violence', 'pain', 'sorrow', 'injury' in simple, everyday situations. So even within organizations, because they are full of violence, pain, sorrow and injuries.

Also see Levinas and Spinoza

vrijdag 15 januari 2010

Overhasty Enlightenment

British prosecutors last month issued an arrest warrant against the former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In previous years Spanish magistrates ordered the arrest of, among others, Chilean and Israeli (former) politicians. But the Spanish Parliament in June announced to remove the principle of universal jurisdiction from its legal system. The Spanish act decides that the transnational jurisdiction will apply only in cases where Spaniards are involved.

Transnational or universal jurisdiction means that within a particularist, national legal system all crimes against humanity can be addressed. Even if the crime took place outside that country, or if the defendants are citizens of other countries.

Universal jurisdiction is one of the possibilities of justice in among other countries England, Belgium and Spain, but as stated, the latter country wants to get rid of it now. As reasons for abolishing it are mentioned mainly practical matters, and in particular the effect that you can get political problems with more or less befriended countries. For example, in its relationship with Israel, the Spanish government felt hindered by it.

But are there only objections of a pragmatic nature to argue against universal jurisdiction? That thought suggests that in the Spanish decision a laudable principle is defeated under the pressure of common political and practical reasons. For that the idea behind universal jurisdiction is praiseworthy indeed is undeniable. Universal jurisdiction is designed to protect the weak and vulnerable of this world by ensuring that war criminals can be tried. Even if they live in countries with a poorly developed legal system. It remains a fine principle.

Yet I think that a more fundamental observation can be made to that nice principle. Already at first sight there is something incongruous in the combination of a nation state and universalism. The nation state is something which is by definition arbitrary, an entity shaped by many historical caprices. It clashes with a universalism which, in line with Enlightenment enthusiasm, wants to be universally valid, regardless of location and time.

The incongruence is further highlighted when we give the history of the system of nation states a closer look. Both the nation state and the market economy stem from competition and the pursuit of strategic advantage over others. That still makes itself felt in such matters as the environment protection, where the combination of nation states on the one hand, and marketprinciples on the other, block a global response to pollution.

We do not need to be condescending about this, because this self-organization through competing national units is only too self-evident. Neither of course do we need to extol it, and to stop all attempts to enlighted universalism looking across borders. Universal justice remains a good idea and it must be wonderful to experience it.

But it becomes problematic when this universalism is so euphoric and triumphalist, that it loses out of sight the origin of nation states and the incongruence of particularistic universalism. Particularly in Western Europe this is an actual risk. The decades of stable peace in Europe - mainly because of American protection - can deprive us of the sight on the underlying, still active aspects of the system of rival nation states. We forget our own origin and end up in an illusion.

Besides it may lead us into the situation that we no longer understand what it means for a country not to be yet in that luxury position. The claim to universal justice can become arrogant and lose the understanding for countries where the rivalry manifests itself in a more hostile way than with us. Of course one must ask whether such a country is doing enough to bring peace within reach. But being in a phase of hostility with other countries is, in itself, legitimate - given the arbitrariness of our system of national boundaries. It is no different than the stage the Western European nations found themselves in, one hundred years and two world wars ago. And be sure that for instance 'disproportionality' looks very different when you’re inside than when you’re outside.

An honest assessment of regimes at war must therefore take that situation of conflict as its starting point. So, such a country is at war and then: how does it deal with that. According to the jurist Kamminga you do well on such an assessment not to be too quick in bringing your own legal system into play. It remains a rough remedy, and wherever it is possible it is preferable to deal with war criminals in their own country. Certainly if a legal system is well equipped for this, which according to Kamminga, for example is the case in Israel.

donderdag 7 januari 2010


In the explanation to the beautiful exhibition Cézanne, Picasso, Mondriaan in the Hague Municipal Museum remarkable words were used to describe what exactly those three painters did in their work.

For example, it was said with regard to Picasso that he ‘dismantled’ his images. Where previously landscapes and - certainly in the classical humanistic tradition - especially people were presented as one and indivisible, Picasso began to emphasize parts. He did this by turning inside out ears, noses, breasts and limbs and expanding them.

The portraits in which Picasso proceeds like this, can very well be regarded as striking images of a new view of man. They remind us of anatomical exercises, but now much more radical than Rembrandt painted them. This is not about dead bodies, but about portraits of living people who are laid out in their parts.

One could say: this is a kind of anti-creativity, the opposite of creation. But then you conceive of ‘creating’ as: the ‘making’ of something. In contrast, one could insist that ‘creating’ and ‘splitting’ do not have to lie that far apart, or more precisely, that indeed they belong together. The latter is the thesis of Ellen ten Wolde, a theologian who has studied a lot on the words used in the biblical creation story. She believes that in that story making and separating alternate, and only in combination with one another make possible a cosmos that knows plurality.

The action of splitting, which according to Van Wolde is inherent to creation, is indicated by the Hebrew word bara. This word is traditionally translated as ‘to create’ in the sense of ‘to make’, but ‘to separate’ would, in her view, be a better translation. In addition, the traditional conception of creation as ‘making’ remains intact, and for that Van Wolde points to the word asa.

Asa and bara alternate, for example in the creation of heaven and earth. Darkness is already there, the water is already there, both have been ‘made’ already. By subsequently ‘splitting’ the mass of water, space comes into being between the heavens and the earth and in it God ‘makes’ the light.

The idea that creation contains an aspect of separation seems to me to be philosophically interesting. That is because of the point that Ten Wolde touches. Namely that - beyond the massive, mystical unity of the All - (sub)divisions become possible between creatures. And therewith, paradoxically, relationships and connectedness.

Along that road Ten Wolde takes a distance – for once not through natural science, but in a text-scientific way - from an interpretation of creation that has long been dominant in the West. Namely the idea of the created universe as an eternal, static and stable entity, which has its counterpart on earth in the form of clerical and administrative hierarchies.

By taking that distance, opportunities arise in the human world to deal differently with each other. If separation and distinction are already present indeed in the idiom of the creation story, then it is not suprising that something like a Jewish tradition can grow out of it. Because the culture of debate may be the most important attribute of that tradition.

Also see Kant avant la lettre

zaterdag 2 januari 2010


It is rather noteworthy that many traditional, religion-related objections to Jews show a similarity to objections that, from several corners, are brought up against the democratic system of government as most Western countries know it today.

Traditional anti-Jewish objections for instance come from Christianity. In Christian circles, with reference to the vehemence with which Jews could carry on against one another, the phrase was coined: ‘It looks like a Jews-church here’ to indicate that somewhere there was much uproar. And besides Christians know the phrase ‘two Jews, three opinions’, a statement indeed that is not contradicted by Jews. On the contrary, all the major Jewish debates and disagreements have been extensively documented and preserved in the Talmud. With as much focus on the winning as on the losing parties.

Where the Qur'an comments negatively on Jews, according to the American Islamic scholar Frank Peters this is largely due to the Jewish culture of debate. Because of that, Judaism acquired the negative image of a religion that succumbed to schisms and sectarianism.

These objections against internal wrangling resemble the revulsion that one regularly can hear being voiced against democracy: that it is cumbersome and slow, that it encourages manipulation and squabbling and that it does not generate the unity needed to face the future. This kind of criticism on democracy comes from all sides. From less educated citizens up to well to do reactionary circles, attached to law and order.

To some extent I can understand that. If you're attached to a certain order - and I myself definitely am - then a lot of the political fuss indeed soon feels as disruptive. It often does not look very edifying. Just take the horse trading that apparently is needed to get Obama's health insurance system adopted by the U.S. Congress, and probably even in heavily battered form.

The endless game of give and take of democratic politics easily creates the image of being filthy and vulgar. It certainly is not something everybody likes to participate in. It is more suitable for the Churchill type of politician ( "Democracy is a bad system but it's the best we've got") than for the Van Agt type, a Dutch Prime Minister who after the formation of his third cabinet preferred to leave the scene to others.

But the point is: is there an alternative to democracy? And what should that alternative look like?

If inertia, squabbling and being unsufficiently prepared for the future mark democracy and make it rather worthless, then the answer must be sought in centralized administration that can proceed energetically through tight, swift decision-making. That is, in dictatorship.

But – no matter how great my desire for order – I do not believe in it. Not in the field of religion, because a strict hierarchy and thinking-discipline would have the upperhand. And to see how that turns out, it is sufficient to refer to the Roman Catholic church where silence had to be kept about the abuse of children by Irish priests. And apparently Rome could enforce that silence. That seems not good to me.

Nor do I believe in dictatorship in the field of politics. Indeed, as for the future, it is not entirely accidental that in dictatorially led countries the environment until recently was no issue. That we manage now to talk about it at all, we owe to the democracies. Even though, on the other hand, precisely because of democracy and the fear for their voters, politicians dare not go far enough.

Squabbling is all in the game, I just say to myself.