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.