donderdag 19 mei 2011

Aristotle and the bonuses

The Dutch legal philosopher Thierry Baudet recently wrote a nice article on Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum and the sustainability of our morality. However interesting the content of the article, on this place I am primarily interested in the end of Baudet’s article. After his discussion of the subtle polemics of Dworkin with his opponents and the activism of Nussbaum, Baudet concludes with the observation that both thinkers don’t show any shortcoming when it comes to high ideals, but fail to translate these into concrete practice.

Is that never ever going to change? I wonder in bewilderment at such a conclusion every time again. Do thinkers time and again accept that they are not relevant to everyday practice and keep critics being satisfied with just noticing that lack of relevance?

Indeed, these observations on the tiresome relationship of thinking to daily life are anything but new. Thus I recently came across a statement of Goethe in which he denounces the speculative, unsensuous and disputatious nature of the work of his philosophical contemporaries. He opposes to them the fellow German countrymen “who, being businessmen, standing in the middle of life, just pay attention to practical matters: they write the best”. And the English of course, “being born as orators and as practical, reality-oriented people”. And Marx formulated his opposition to the prevailing philosophy by saying that it comes to changing the world instead of interpreting it theoretically.

But from that perspective, I find it equally appalling that Baudet promotes Aristotle as a possible remedy for too much high-mindedness and philosophical isolation. Aristotle! The one who said that knowledge of eternal things is much loftier than practical knowledge. And for whom there was nothing more preferable than to dwell in contemplation.

True, among the ancient Greeks Aristotle was the one with his feet most firmly on the ground. Probably it is even for that reason that Baudet recommends him in his article, he can serve as an example against the theorizing of Dworkin and Nussbaum. Indeed, Aristotle has, more than they have, an eye for the paradoxical character of man as a being that is constantly torn between conflicting desires and needs. Moreover, Aristotle gave more close attention to the manifestations of biological and social life than any other ancient thinker.

But when it comes to the point, as far as his fundamental orientation is concerned, Aristotle is entirely in the Greek tradition. He does not really get out of the circle of his ancient Greek colleagues who maintain a hierarchical world view with contemplation at the top and labor at the base. And where the main concern is to stay away as far as possible from labor and as close as possible to the top.

It seems to me that this focus is for a large part responsible for the continuing irrelevance of our Western thinking. As long as Plato and Aristotle remain the ultimate benchmark of our thinking this is not going to change easily. Then the gap keeps reproducing itself.

The intriguing thing is that this reproduction has a parallel in the world of management and organization. The fascination for reflection at a distance to working life is reflected in the practice of our organizations. Up to the striving to make the distance between the thinker / manager and the work as large as possible. The degree of frustration that this causes may be derived from reports, for instance from the world of care and nursing homes. “The distance between the top and the workfloor becomes astronomical. In fact, the two don’t meet anymore”. And the rewards grow along with the distance. Here the Greek ideal of a sublime distance to labor has been realized alsmost perfectly, I would say.

Almost ... and maybe not forever everywhere. Because for instance the Dutch Council for Social Development (RMO) recently gave a revolutionary opinion. It was about excellent social workers in child welfare, which now too often make the transition to management because it pays better and gives more prestige. The RMO wants to keep them in the operational work by better rewarding them, precisely if they refrain from a management position.

This actually is a paradigm shift of the first order, a break with the ancient Greeks.