woensdag 26 december 2012


If there is lack of confidence, does it help to talk about it extensively?

At the Amsterdam Municipality they thought so. A few years ago, officials noted that there was much mutual distrust within the civil service. Some refused to talk to others and there was a lot of time and energy lost by legitimizing to others of what one was doing. To change this a meeting was organized for senior management to discuss the topic of trust.

After the participants had split up into groups and had begun their conversations, the chairing committee soon noted proudly that indeed people were talking about trust. The then newly appointed municipal secretary was still enough Rotterdamlike to note that if the issue is trust, you are entitled to expect that people will talk about trust. But apparently in Amsterdam this was quite a lot already.

But even then, does the premise hold true which says that talking about confidence yields confidence? If only it were that simple, I tend to think. In many cases talking about something is no more than enthousiastically –  see photo – going around the core of the issue. Unless you structure the conversation solidly, control the structure closely and collect the results and store them; then you may win something.

Meanwhile the budgetcuts make sure there is less talk in Amsterdam. The lean years have come and a lot of talk turns out afterwards to have been primarily a luxury phenomenon. That it has largely passed the core may appear from the fact that trustless talk now in some cases has been replaced by trustless management, simply top-down. Too bad the fat years have not been better utilized.

Also see Unlearning

zaterdag 15 december 2012


“The Palestinians have gone too far”

“Extra Jewish settlements as punishment for going to the UN”

I feel very embarrassed when I read this type of pedantic statements by Netanyahu, sometimes even elevated to headlines.

As if Israel does not owe its existence to a UN decision. As if the partition plan was not the core of that decision. And especially as if Israel can impose conditions on others while at the same time it continues to build settlements undisturbedly.

I understand very well that Israel does not want a second front of missile threats, this time from the East. But I’m afraid that behind this arrogant kind of performance there is mainly perverse ideology: the West Bank is ours and we let nobody stop us to have it.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line

maandag 10 december 2012


The voice of Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, Hosea and Micah has its impact on modern philosophers. So says the American Professor Sandor Goodhart who recently gave a lecture at the Amsterdam University and who had with “modern philosophers” in particular René Girard and Emmanuel Levinas in mind.

The prophetic voice is audible in René Girard when he calls attention to the ‘scapegoat mechanism’. By that term he means the phenomenon that one man is sacrificed as atonement for uncontrolled rivalries within a collective.

Girard sees this as follows. Rivalry within a collective begins with mimesis: the tendency of people to copy each other’s behavior. In fact, this involves jealousy because people want to be or possess what other people are or possess. We, twenty-first century people, recognize this rivalry as a good capitalist principle, but according to Girard the phenomenon is as old as mankind.

The mimetic rivalry leads to a certain dynamism which runs through different stages. The first step is the struggle of all against all, for example within a city community. If that fight gets uncontrollably violent, the second step can be put in operation: the struggle of all against all becomes a struggle of all against one. This one is physically victimized – which usually means: killed – and that event will bring the peace back into the city. By this beneficial effect the victim will soon get deified and worshipped as a refuge and patron saint of the citizens.

But in order to maintain the calm for a longer period, ongoing victimization is necessary, and in the satisfaction of that long-term need the original victim appears to play a role again. Although the victim is already dead and canonized, she or he may very well be victimized again, only now in a symbolic way. That satisfies the need, and consequently that’s going to be repeated every year. The sacrificial rituals that go with it have a conciliatory and soothing effect on the urban population.

Now, the merit of the Hebrew prophets - and in their wake of Jesus - according to Girard, is that they oppose this sacrality which is so close to violence. They criticize the sacrificial rituals and proclaim that eventually our actions should be focused on individual and collective justice and nothing else.

At this point Goodhart sees Girard and Levinas meet one another. After all, Levinas draws inspiration from the prophets as well and especially from their belief that nothing, no sacrifices but also no institutions or prevailing morality, can be a substitution for one’s personal responsibility. At most, Levinas goes further than Girard, Goodhart says, when he says that one is not only responsible for one’s own actions, but also for those of others.

You could emphasize that the latter idea marks an important difference between Girard and Levinas. Indeed Levinas, when understood that way, arrives at a new type of victimization – namely that of the substituter of the Other – while Girard wants to get rid of the notion of victimhood altogether.

I personally would rather not attach too much importance to the victimish substitution in Levinas. And then Girard and Levinas stand close to each other in their shared dislike of ritual sacrality.

Also see Levinas and Badiou and Holy Fire

woensdag 5 december 2012


A human being can learn, but can she also unlearn? I don’t mean that she can forget, for example in the sense of a skill you get unused to and lose. No, I mean that one has gained insights and then returns them. And not so by progressive clarification, but because these insights have become socially less desirable. In that case the question is: did you really get rid of them? Is the situation as it was before you gained the insights?

If that would be the case, unlearning would indeed exist. But if you still carry the learned things with you and simply don’t talk about them, then there is no question of unlearning. Then anyway the situation is very different from what it was before you started to learn.

These thoughts come to me because the last two years at my work were geared to collective learning. By focusing, with the help of external consultants, on our customer (the Amsterdam citizen) and our primary staff the permanent question was: where do our management concepts and controldrive hamper us more than they help us. When the management factory becomes dysfunctional?

In the process, we learned that the reality of the customer and the workplace may sometimes be very different from the manager’s reality. And that, in order to bridge the gap, and especially in order to somehow “have a control dashboard” often too quickly ICT is embraced, forgetting that a subtle network of connections between people and between people and machines determines the quality of information. We learned that there is no quick route, and that only constant attention to these connections eventually guarantees quality.

Those are insights indeed. Can one just shake them off once they are there? It seems so. At my work I already heard the simplicities pass again: just name some goals and implement them, and then the desired information rolls with the push of a button from the machine. As if not information is the result of a multitude of dependencies and delicate interactions. But maybe that kind of talk comes from people to whom the insights of the past two years have gone by, that is: who didn’t learn anything anyway. Of course, in that case you also cannot dislearn.

With people who díd learn something the past few years I suspect that the situation is different. There, I think, things have definitely changed in a way that is not easily reversed. Once you have seen how dysfunctional an organization can operate, your alertness to sham management will be aroused for ever. Dislearning and return to a naive embrace of command-and-control management have become impossible then. A broken egg cannot be repaired.

Of course, a stiffer regime and tight economic conditions can curtail the space to give effect to these insights quite severely. But people do not just lose their insights like that, so something under the surface will be different from what was the case before the insights came. Completely back to before will therefore not really be an option.

Also see Blowing bubbles and AAA

donderdag 29 november 2012

Secular Varieties

What to do when it does not happen automatically any longer?

I mean: if believing in a God is no longer just automatically there. Indeed, isn’t this the situation of many of us? If we do not ourselves come from families where the Eternal One was still a living presence, then we're all at least heirs of traditions in which His presence obviously used to be self-evident and is not so anymore.

His absence may be experienced as a loss, even if  it was never your personal part. And also a society as a whole can miss it, even if that society is largely secularized. What do people do with that loss?

Some find a substituting idea or ideal. Perhaps physicist Robbert Burggraaf is such a person. In any case, he believes in something bordering to timeless purity, namely the existence of the unity of all human knowledge, in which everything is in a meaningful way connected. That inspires him to continuously explore the world in in his scientific studies and that earns him the meaningfulness he’s looking for.

In Jewish, even synagogual circles the loss is often quite obvious: a personal God is no longer there for everyone, and for some already so for a very long time. But a kind of compensation has been found: just continue with the rituals. Make Kiddush on Friday night and Havdalah on Saturday night. Build a booth with Sukkot, tell stories with Passover and eat diary food with Shavuot. That way you stay close to tradition and a living reality remains palpable.

In Christian circles the struggle with the loss is more intense, probably because the disappearance of theistic belief with most people took place relatively recently. Indeed, until the sixties the dogmas and proofs of God’s existence were still alive in those circles. The emptiness of modernism that has come in its place still feels raw and menacing.

To serve as a counterbalance against this threatening chill the declared atheist Ger Groot recommends post-Christian seekers to resume the ancient rituals, without the theological ideas that originally went with them. Because rituals have their own strengths and create their own reality which cannot just modernistically be effaced. And that feels warm and beneficial.

To master the art of ‘ritual without faith’ Christians look at the way many Jews practise  that already much longer. Thierry Baudet says in this respect: “It may be a good idea to reappreciate Christianity in a secular way. Many Jews do so with regard to Judaism, they often don’t believe a word of the Torah, but nevertheless discover a lot of wisdom in the religious tradition. They are proud to see themselves as Jewish, and realize that the rituals and usages in some strange way complete our existence”.

Exciting. But I do not know whether Christianity is equally well suited for this approach as Judaism is.

Also see Mission Completed

zaterdag 17 november 2012

Kant avant la lettre

Only when someone knows what is happening inside – that is to say: what is going on within himself – he appears to be able to convey that to others. Only then he can use that for communication.

This thought occurs to me after my visit to the exhibition The Road to Van Eyck in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. The reason for this thought is the way in which Jan van Eyck in his paintings works with light and light reflection and through illusionary effects comes closer to reality than his predecessors did.

“As one of the first he succeeded in evoking tangible reality in a convincing way” the accompanying text tells us. And he succeeded, paradoxically, precisely because he abandons the tangible real stuff.

Take for example the way he renders gold. Until Jan van Eyck real gold was used for its rendering. What more do you want, you might say, to be able to convincingly display gold. Well, that real gold appears to be much less convincing than the light dots, patches, and smudges of paint that the artist puts on the canvas, for example to show gold brocade.

Apparently Van Eyck observed in himself what was going on within him. His brain made gold out of dots and patches and smudges in a way that he found more persuasive than leaf-gold. His brain judged the unreal to be more real than the real. So Van Eyck chose for the effect that his brain produced instead of for real gold.

The thought that arises is: this is Immanuel Kant, but four hundred years avant la lettre. Indeed, Kant thought the real world to be unknowable, so to be less relevant than the world we construct using the categories of our minds. That constructed world according to Kant is our reality.

The parallel between Van Eyck and Kant shows more than just the fact that we construct a great deal of our reality ourselves. The way in which the painter, primarily in himself, must have observed what the paint did to him indicates a form of introspection that in the West brought us revolutionary cultural and philosophical changes.

The most private subject appears to be a find-spot for insights that, once they are brought out, turn out to hold for more people. Once Jan realized what was happening to him he was able to evoke the same effect in other people. This is the kind of generalization I like: that’s universality that appears from what happens, not universality which a priori is postulated by abstract reason.

This remains the eternal truth of the focus on the subject, the human individual. Only if someone knows how things come to him he appears to be able to communicate them to others. And only then a beginning of shared experience is possible, starting from a rather solitary position.

Also see Dismantling

maandag 29 oktober 2012

Levinas and Rousseau

Sometimes it may seem like Jean-Jeacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778) is still alive and perhaps the most timely philosopher we ‘ve got. “Be yourself”, or “back to nature” are slogans that are doing well and that could easily be led back to Rousseau. And something more serious but no less fashionable: the desire to get behind the appearance of things in order to discover the authentic core of one’s true identity, whether  rooted in a tradition or not. With his emphasis on the True Self, Rousseau may be called paradigmatic for a distinctly Western preoccupation with the Self, also in newborn Jews or Christians and nowadays in Muslims as well.

But contemporary commentators make it clear that this actuality of Rousseau is for the most part illusory. Because the collective pursuit of authenticity empties that aspiration of meaning to the degree that inauthenticity remains. “Once you try to be authentic you start playing authenticity, and you are no longer yourself in a relaxed way” says Wilfred van de Poll.

After God and religious traditions had disappeared already as absolute values, it is now the turn to the belief in an authentic self à la Rousseau to disappear. This removes our last beacon of absoluteness, after postmodernism ‘pretending’ is the only thing we have got left. Actually, no contemporary philosopher yet believes in the absoluteness of anything.

No one? Well, one - yet very French - philosopher tries hard to uphold, in the midst of postmodernist violence, at least something of an absolute value. But in order to do so he has to give a radical twist to that absoluteness. That is no longer – as was the case for centuries with Rousseau as a highlight – the Self,  but the Other. Because according to him, the other sometimes appears to us in a way that can not be contradicted, that is to say: absolutely.

The philosopher who makes this turn is Levinas, and the radical nature of his orientation becomes visible as Levinas with regard to various themes ends up at positions that are contrary to those of Rousseau. For example when it comes to the valuation of reason and the appreciation of technology.

Rousseau , although he was a philosopher, manages to embrace a romantic anti-intellectualism. He may even seduce us to stop thinking. He does so through his emphasis on authenticity and on the idea that reason robs us of an originally given innate purity.

This idea is entirely foreign to Levinas. Indeed, Levinas formulates important objections against reason, but the last thing he propagates is to stop thinking. On the contrary, we should strengthen our thoughts, and let them be corrected through confrontations with the other.

In line with that position Levinas has an optimistic view of technology and science, unlike Rousseau who accuses science and technology of alienating man from his original self, the reflection of which he believes to find in primitive peoples and noble savages.

Really, nothing could be further from Levinas than that. And actually nothing is further from  Jewish tradition than that idea of Rousseau.

Also see Harder than postmodern and Levinas and Derrida

dinsdag 16 oktober 2012


This year’s setting up the sukkah generated a number of associations.

Firstly because this year in my mind I dedicated the leafy canopy cabin to my recently deceased mother. The fragile but picturesque edifice with its sunny and shade spots connects with the surrounding nature as she did. In addition, she was a woman of the introversion, of the constant return to her inner cabin. So this year’s cabin is a remembrance cabin.

That gave me associations with the book The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt. Fortunately not because of a parallel with the terrible muscular disease ALS by which Judt was hit. But because of Judt’s description of his situation in which he had no more power over his muscles and had only his intellectual function left. In the book he testifies of the strength of the human inner space in a way the taste of which I experienced with my mother for the first time.

Albert Hogeweij writes: “At night Judt lay awake for hours, and he let himself be carried away by his memory to those special experiences, adventures and events that had enriched his life and made it special. Not being capable anymore to do anyting else he at night wrote complete stories ‘in his head’ in which he managed to draw connections in a much sharper way than before. This led to many ‘little chronicles’ of his life. However, he was no longer able to write them down himself. He had to wait until the next morning for someone to whom he could dictate his stories”. Meanwhile he stored them in his memory cabin.

Finally there is the conscience cabin which Levinas loves to talk about in his article without Honor without Flags. “The real inner life is not a pious or revolutionary idea which in an established world comes to mind, but the obligation to save the whole of man’s humanity in a cabin that is open to all sides: our conscience”.

Also see Kol Nidrei and other illusions

dinsdag 11 september 2012

Sabbath and Crisis

According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will come when for once all Jews without exception will  keep the Sabbath. Who knows, maybe it once almost succeeded – in more pious times than ours. It definitely must have been a heavy weight on the conscience of the one who was the spoilsport then.

In our time, the fulfilment of that hope is less likely than ever, given the many Jews who spend Sabbath in ways that divert from what the commandments require.

Yet I sometimes think that the Sabbath already several times brought us a (provisional) rescue. I mean: rescue from the clutches of the monster of the financial markets. In the recent years of financial crisis, weekends were crucial to sort things out in the impending chaos. It is true, the Sabbath was by far not long enough in those circumstances and the rescuework needed to be continued until Sundaynight, before the markets would open again on Monday morning.

But on the basis of that weekend rhythm, various financial disasters were averted. The rescue of the Fortis and ABN AMRO banks for instance started after the close of the markets on Friday October 3, 2008 and was completed in the night of 5 to 6 October. And the main Euro Summits in recent years were all held in stock-market-free weekends.

And now there is speculation on departure of Greece from the Eurozone, Shabbat plays a role again - be it a much less messianic role. Already detailed scenarios are being developed, all of which should begin on a Friday night.

Suppose the Sabbath had never been invented, and consequently neither the Sunday. Then the financial monster would have marched on uncessantly and by now we would definitely have been swallowed.

But whether we bought anything more than just time remains to be seen.

Also see Aristotle and the bonuses and A Single Sentence

maandag 27 augustus 2012

Levinas and Empathy

Idealistic do-gooders have big expectations about empathy, ie the ability of people to identify with others and their situation. If only we would deploy more of that ability the world would possibly look a lot nicer.

Already in the eighteenth century the Enlightenment thinkers formulated the idea that we through empathy - according to them a constant factor in human nature - are capable of altruistic behavior, even when it goes against our immediate self-interest.

In our time, a variation on this idea is propagated by the philosophers Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum. They encourage us to read many books, especially novels. Because that broadens the range of feelings and thoughts we get familiar with and it helps us to understand other people better. The world can only benefit from that.

Into this line of reasoning fits the often heard remark that Jews, given their history, surely ought to know better as to what violence does to people. They should, because of that experience, be able to show more restraint in what they do to others than other people (can) show.

Quite often also my favorite philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is related to the importance of empathy. His emphasis on the phenomenon that we suddenly can feel guilty and obliged towards another human being would require that we be empathic. In order to achieve that altruistic effect we should actively identify with the other.

Actually I am very much in favour of doing so, but I think it is not what Levinas speaks about. It might even be the opposite. Because the characteristic of the experience of the other as Levinas describes it, is precisely that you did not identify with the other. Indeed, you are completely surprised by what the other brings up, because he falls silent where you are excited, because she proves not to be enthousiastic for what you believe in.

The shock that comes with that creates a sense of obligation, says Levinas. For such a reaction that you yourself could not have invented, according to Levinas, the other is indispendable. Because that’s the essence of his otherness. No empathy could equal that effect.

A prerequisite for being touched this way by another may be this: that you are able to face your own limitations. Because if you are, you may sooner notice somebody else’s vulnerability and the injuries caused by your lack of empathy.

Also see Levinas and Egoism

zondag 12 augustus 2012

Fair Play

For fourteen days we were experiencing the fever of sports performances, in the spirit of global brotherhood and fair play. And the world enjoyed it.

But I can not resist making a few comments, it’s probably to do with my underdeveloped interest in sports. What keeps me hooked in particular, is the often unthinkingly acclaimed concept of ‘fair play’. 

Because fair play is a concept that belongs to winners, it is used mainly by those already in control. Within communities that are - politically and economically - comfortable, losers are still relative winners and in such a situation fair play thrives.

That explains why the term stems from the British Empire, which at the time of the founding of the Olympics was at the height of its power. But, says Professor of sports history Tony Collins, this gives an indication of the illusory aspects of fair play: “The British expanded their empire by force and manipulation. The idea of fair play can only be maintained if you are the dominant world power”.

Also in politics we cling to fair play: to the idea that reasonable people talk to each other in a reasonable way and look after their interests in rivalry with others while respecting the rules of the game.

Daniel Gordis articulates these thoroughly courteous and optimistic view of politics in a retrospective on his youth: “In the American suburban home in which I was raised, we were taught that war was an aberration. Conflict is solvable. If war persisted, the both sides had been less bold than they needed to be. If Americans and North Vietnamese wanted to, they could figure out a way to end the conflict; the same was clearly true of Jews and Arabs”. And then he poses the question whether one, as with fair play, must not belong to the winners already in order to afford oneself such a high moral view of conflict management and politics.

Gordis comes to these thoughts after his move to Israel. “The Middle East is not a Hebrew-speaking version of the comfortable, safe, conflict-free suburban Baltimore in which I had been raised”. Perhaps completely different rules apply there.

Those thoughts are strengthened with him by the recent death of Yitzhak Shamir, the uncompromising right-wing Israeli Prime Minister of the nineties. Gordis has mixed feelings when retrospecting his life. He knows that in life already Shamir was not very popular because of his staunch views, and for his funeral hardly any interest appeared to exist.

But, Gordis observes, Shamir did not stem from the comfortable suburb with its fair play. He had very different experiences with the world. His father escaped the Nazis only to be murdered, when he returned to his birthplace Ruzhany in Belarus, by his former neighbors. Shamir could not help but see the world as hostile to Jews, against which Jews should stand vigilant and combative.

Therefore, Shamir at the time of the British mandate until 1948 was not inclined to let his terrorism against the British to be taken away from him because it would be unfair play. Following the assassination attempt against Harold MacMichael, the Commissioner of the British Mandate, for example, he said later without any regrets: “There are those who say that to kill Martin (a British sergeant) is terrorism, but to bomb civilians is professional warfare. But I think it is the same from the moral point of view”.

At this moment, says Gordis, Israel belongs to the winners. “Ours is not the world that Shamir and his generation inherited. Ours is a world in which the Jews are secure, and largely safe”, and that is in no small measure due to controversial actions of Shamir, Begin and Ariel Sharon.

The irony of the story is that Israel, now it is relatively comfortable, in its turn makes play with fair play: there will be no talking with terrorists (read Palestinians).

It's not fair.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line

zaterdag 28 juli 2012

Levinas’s obligations

This time it was, in my view, Rick Jacobs’s turn to fall into error. Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the American Reform movement. On June 9 he held his installation speech and emphasized that – unlike the prejudice often is – also Reform Judaism knows its mitzvot, ie has its obligations.

To me nothing seems wrong with that remark, but it bothers me that Jacobs for support of that statement turns to my favorite philosopher Levinas. He says: “The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that we come into the world already obligated by the mere gaze of the other, a gaze that demands a response from us. By this, Levinas means that relationships always come with obligations”.

Here Levinas, as so often, is being presented as a moralist, a philosopher of duty ethics. And that’s a shame, because if you want to remove the sparkling elements out of his work then that’s is what you should do. To present Levinas as our contemporary raised finger.

Whereas there is ample space to view Levinas in a different light. You can also read him as a philosopher who not so much prescribes but rather describes. Because he provides descriptions of the peculiar phenomenon that, in the middle of our legitimately self-centred existence, we suddenly may feel responsible for someone else. Surprisingly enough.

If that’s the way you read Levinas yet another thing may strike you. Namely that he breaks with a conception of the world, which is conventional among philosophers, as composed of several layers some of which are more fundamental and others are more superficial, with all hierarchy that comes with that. If it is true that selfishness and altruism can alternate in a completely unpredictable way, then there is no question any longer of such a hierarchical structure.

But in that case it is equally impossible any longer to speak, as Jacobs does, of being “already obligated” or about relationships that “always” come with obligations, as if a pre-given system of eternal truths would exist. That does not do justice to the surprises and the utterly transcendent lightnings which Levinas in my view primarily speaks about.

Also see Levinas and egoism

vrijdag 29 juni 2012

The Green Line and the Red Line

The Efrat wine we had with Passover was delicious, at least the red one from our Hema store. But I won’t buy it again. Because I do want to stimulate Israel’s economy, but only at the right side of the Green Line.

The problem is that with a lot of Israeli products you can not see whether they come from the occupied territories or not. But with this wine you can see it very well. Efrat is the name of a settlement on the West Bank. And I definitely do not want to sponsor that kind of settlements.

Is it really worth while to make a point of this question? Indeed, is not – unlike many Israel bashers dare to say aloud – the violence in all countries surrounding Israel raging on a much larger and horrible scale? Isn’t it peanuts what Israel is doing compared to that?

With former Knesset Chairman Avraham Burg I agree that you have to make a big point of it. If Israel claims to be ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ and wants to uphold fundamental values such as democracy, equality, rule of law, secularism and modernity, then any encroachment on the land of another is in opposition to those claims.

He goes quite far, Burg, and he is tough like an Old Testament prophet. He argues that the occupation of Palestinian land across the Green Line brings out the worst from the Israelis: it generates fanatical, nationalist, fundamentalist and undemocratic forces that undermine the very foundations of Israeli society. I am afraid that Burg is right and that we should heed his words: respect the Green Line.

We are never going to be spotless, and probably the saying is true that every state is founded on a crime. Yet next year I prefer to drink Passover wine from Latrun, from the same Hema store. Strictly speaking that is wrong too because Latrun until 1967 fell under Jordanian control. But the boundary adjustment that took place there was too logical to object against, especially because the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was frequently under Jordanian fire from Latrun.

If Abraham Burg says that also that case of transgressing the Green Line is not innocent, then so be it. I can reconcile that with mine and his Red Line, which is about decency and democracy. I do not want to cross that one.

Also see Lazy

vrijdag 8 juni 2012


If parrhesia is a virtue than the Jewish people may be called virtuous indeed. Because parrhesia can be translated as ‘frankness’, or ‘outspokenness’ or as ‘saying what you think’. Well, that uses to come easy to a lot of Jews.

Yet the word does not stem from the Jewish tradition but from the Greek. The word parrhesia first appears in Euripides and continues to appear from the end of the fifth century before the common era in the writings of classical Greek antiquity.

In our time the word was revitalized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault who in 1983/84 gave lectures on parrhesia as the phenomenon whereby a speaker frees himself and speaks out boldly. In modernity, when man is increasingly thrown back upon himself, Foucault considers it important to be faithful to oneself and to one’s own thoughts.

The most recent plea for parrhesia I read comes from the British Professor Frank Furedi. He advocates parrhesia under the admonition “Man, dare to judge”. Therewith he counters the tendency to lukewarm tolerance in our society, as a feeble instrument of non-judgment, of keeping a safe distance. Hannah Arendt sees the unwillingness to judge as a sign that one is inclined to withdraw from public life. While by actually judging a dialogue with other people may arise.

It is true, Furedi says, that expressing a value judgment can be a form of psychological violence - but a complex society just can not do without judgment and comparison. Therefore courage is needed, because freedom of expression and the pursuit of knowledge will usually want to take their own unpredictable course.

In ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, they possessed that courage: there, according to Furedi, that risky attitude got its first appreciation. “Daring and freedom for the Greeks were values that reinforced each other. Something similar is seen in Renaissance Italy, where ideas of freedom were accompanied by courage and zeal for discovery”.

What annoys me in a presentation of things like Furedi’s is the adoration of Greekness and Renaissance combined with the total absence of attention to the Jewish contribution to fearless speech in the course of history. That is an imbalance in the presentation of our cultural heritage that bothers me already from my high school. Also then the adoration of Antiquity raged large and I felt that something was missing.

Indeed, as far as frankness is concerned, the Jews had already earned their spurs when the Athenians had yet to establish their democracy. Abraham had been bargaining with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jacob had fought with the angel.

And the Jews did not stop behaving that way when in Athens the democracy got defunct and Socrates and Plato pleaded for censorship of poetic and other expressions of the soul that could undermine the pure morale. The author of the book of Job lets his feelings speak freely and goes far in questioning God’s justice.

In the Mishnah and the Talmud the rabbis continued rewarding intellectual courage by taking halachic decisions by majority vote and by nevertheless including the rejected ideas and their authors in the texts and preserving them for centuries. Very different from their surroundings where the dissidents of Catholic councils were excluded from the annals of the church.

It may be true that at the time of the Renaissance, the balance shifted. Then in the surrounding world came the frank and critical humanists, while the rabbinic tradition was in danger of becoming bogged down in a formalistic straitjacket.

But the degree of parrhesia, not to say the brutality, which Eli Wiesel describes in his story about the rabbis in a concentration camp who sue God for the misery he lets pass, has old testimonials. From before Greek democracy.

Also see Greek and Jew and Authority

donderdag 10 mei 2012


In April’s www.managementboek.nl management guru Gary Hamel makes a few interesting remarks. He asks for instance why organizational theory keeps failing to be a full-fledged science. Further he calls management literature “generally weak”, and it appears he is not the only one who thinks so.

Hamel also provides an explanation for the lack of scientific development of organizational theory. Truly scientific thinking is only possible, he says, if you are fascinated by a problem that is truly worth attention. Developing an oppositional concept involves a high degree of personal risk, and most scientists are prepared to run the risk only if they are engaged with issues that really matter. Well, such a hazardous problem is to be found yet in management science.

In other scientific disciplines that kind of motivation is commonplace already for a long time, Hamel says. The greatest human achievements are all the results of a tremendous commitment to risky problems. For examples he mentions the quest for a cure for AIDS or the project of decoding the human genome. In this drudging conception of science he is confirmed by the new President of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences Hans Clevers, “You toil without knowing whether it is profitable. And then suddenly a window opens wide”. In line with that thought Hamel wonders: what is the management thinker’s moon mission?

I partly agree with this line of thought. I also believe that an obsessive theme is needed, but I do not think it is missing. I believe that such a ‘risky problem’ in organizations has since long been found, but maybe it’s just a bit too risky. What I have in mind is the phenomenon of shame and embarrassment. In my view this phenomenon plays an important, but hardly investigated or discussed role in our interaction, while it looms large, even in organizations.

And perhaps the role of this phenomenon, but also its hazardous character, is even extra large, precisely because it is undiscussed. It can therefore grow rampant and create stagnation which then remains unexplained. As Brené Brown says in her TEDTalk: if we want to break stagnation, if we really want to be creative and innovative, we need to talk about shame.

Hazardous it definitely is, amongst others for the following two reasons. First, it is often supposed to be unscientific behaviour to talk about emotions and feelings. In order to be scientifically acceptable according to current codes, mathematics professor Ronald Meester says, one should refrain from words like emotion, meaning, ethics, and thus also  shame. He does not like the codes but they are tough.

In addition, the mere bringing up shame and embarrassment for discussion may cause shame and embarrassment. And that’s scary.

But if Hamel is right in thinking that for science you need risky problems, then precisely in the just mentioned topic might be hidden a nice perspective. The way this theme of shame and embarrassment is painstakingly avoided in organizations could very well generate exactly the scientific stimulation an investigator needs. Risky this problem might righteously be called, more so than many problems of natural scientists who can retreat in their laboratories.

The envisaged problem may be read as follows: how do you combine the human qualities of self-promotion and systematic thinking, which are needed in management, with the inevitability of failure, shame and embarrassment? And that question sounds much like a central question that Hamel puts: how to make organizations just as human as the people who work there? This question seems to me to be risky ánd fascinating at once, with a moon mission’s dignity. Science could not but benefit from it.

Also see Something small

dinsdag 28 februari 2012

Je peux (pas)

The human body, thus says the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, knóws things. It possesses knowledge of the world around. According to him, the body is always focused on its surroundings, and our body is originally involved in the world, in the sense that it coincides with the world. For example if you play piano, your body temporarily coïncides with the instrument. My body knows many things about the world of which I, as a thinking being, am not aware.

Merleau-Ponty calls this knowledge of the senses and limbs ‘the silent thinking’ and he sometimes refers to it as the feeling of ‘I can’ (‘Je peux’). With that last phrase he takes a position opposite René Descartes for whom not the body but the mind is fundamental, summarized by Descartes in the formula ‘I think’ (‘cogito’). Merleau-Ponty argues that beneath the conscious knowledge of the I-think the more original layer of the I-can lies hidden: a physical knowledge of the world around you.

Why can I only partially agree with this idea? Not because I, like Descartes, assign primacy to thinking, for I have no problems in accepting the idea that we humans are through our bodies physically positioned in the world. But why does he say I-can? And why does he speak of coinciding-with? In my experience, my situatedness at least as often is a case of I-can-not. And my coinciding-with is at least as often a matter of colliding-with.

Take skating, for an example. The I-can was definitely not my first experience with the irons under my feet. And that’s still not the case when after some time I stand on the ice again. Only sustained winters like we had just now enable me to experience the I-can to some degree, by properly pushing off and using my weight. Apparently in my case quite a bit of I-think is needed as well before I arrive at I-can.

My spontaneous movements sometimes seem to be exactly the wrong ones. Whether it concerns skating, writing, football or playing an instrument, the I-can-not is there as often as the I-can. Awkward, wooden, a bit like Levinas describes when he writes about the unfolding of human action “as on an ill-paved road, jolted about by instants each of which is a beginning all over again. The job does not flow, does not catch on, is discontinuous – a discontinuousness which is perhaps the very nature of a ‘job’”.

Indeed, I notice around me that there are people for whom – unlike for me – the I-can is the most obvious and primary experience. They have a kind of immediate contact with themselves, with the ice, with the ball, with the violin. Would Merleau-Ponty have been like that?

My objection to the absence of the I-can-not does not, in my view, affect Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical point, which remains fully erect. With the latter’s rejection of a free-floating spirit I completely agree, as with his emphasis on our embeddedness in the world and on the entwinement of body and spirit. But from that last position I end up as often at the I-can-not as at the I-can. And in the I-can-not a bit of the I-think is badly needed.

Also see Heidegger, Wittgenstein and traffic

zaterdag 11 februari 2012

Levinas and Spinoza

Is there such a thing as typically Jewish philosophy? That’s an interesting question but I would not dare to answer it, and certainly not in the short space of a column.

Another, slightly more focused question: does something exist that the Jewish philosophers Spinoza and Levinas have in common? If so, could that commonnality be interpreted as something Jewish? 

Whatever our answer to that question will be, we first of all will have to establish – as many people have done before – that with regard to a theme which for Levinas is essential, Levinas and Spinoza are diametrically opposed. That theme is the question whether reality is a closed entity.

Levinas vehemently opposes the conception of the world as a closed system. Because in such a system man is easily subordinated to a kind of totalitarian thinking in which he is only a cog in the machine. In contrast to that, Levinas emphasizes that there are phenomena, such as another human being, that time and again can break the closeness and that point to an infinite openness.

That’s more or less the absolute opposite of Spinoza’s vision. As much as Spinoza is concerned, according to Han van Ruler, there is just one reality, one natural system into which everything is included, to the effect that “nothing escapes the power of the system. The whole universe hangs together as a single tight reasoning”.

One may argue about it, but to me the openness to transcendence and the reserve vis a vis closed (thinking-)systems seems to be a Jewish trait. This trait manifests itself early in Jewish history in the guise of prophets who had to correct kings, and in the reluctance with regard to the absolute claims of messianic figures. However, it is clear that the Jewish philosophers Spinoza and Levinas on this point have little in common. 

For a change I want to divert attention to an aspect that I find Jewish and that both, Spinoza and Levinas, do exhibit. What I mean is their outspoken appreciation for the quality of life, as something which can be distinguished from the attention to the mere fact of existence.

When it comes to Spinoza’s appreciation of quality of life the neuro-philosopher Antonio Damasio expresses this as follows: “Not content with the blessings of mere survival, nature seems to have had a nice afterthought: to provide a better than neutral life state, what we as thinking and affluent creatures identify as wellness and well-being”.

For indicating the quality of life Levinas uses the word ‘enjoyment’, with regard to which he says: “The bare fact of life is never bare. Life is not the naked will to be, life is love of life, a relation with contents that are not my being but more dear than my being: thinking, eating, sleeping, reading, working, warming oneself in the sun”.

In my view, this Jewish appreciation of the experience of human existence traces back to the taking seriously of emotions – social, sexual, moral, and other emotions. I call that a Jewish trait, though one could wonder about that nowadays with so many ultra-Orthodox Jews around who are constantly trying to suppress their sexual impulses.

Spinoza shows that trait indeed, even though he is often cited as representative of the Western tradition which mostly wants to learn us to stand unmoved beyond many things, and certainly beyond emotions. Damasio shows that Spinoza can be placed in that emotion-critical tradition indeed, but with a characteristic annotation: “the subduing of the passions should be accomplished by reason-induced emotion and not by pure reason alone”. Because, says Spinoza, reason on its own has difficulties in fulfilling its emotion-suppressing task. To which Damasio adds: “try to avoid it, it is very energy consuming”.

The latter may appear to us to be self-evident, but it certainly has not always been so. In order to see that we may compare it with the aforementioned age-old mainstream Western philosophy which tended to distrust or neutralize emotions. On the religious level this was manifested in the Christian tradition that considered the body as an in itself insignificant vehicle for the journey of the soul to the afterlife. On the secular-scientific level that was visible in a greater attention to the existence of the world, the people and things, than to the experience of existence.

Appreciation for our earthly existence and the contents thereof, in a cultural-philosophical way – ie in a non-trivial way – that point was reached in the Western world at its earliest in Montaigne, and really only in the twentieth century in modern hedonists such as Michel Onfray and Michel Foucault. And then, according to Damasio, only very partially still, because “feelings were beyond the bounds of science, thrown outside the door”. So, Spinoza’s attention to the world of our experience was early, and Levinas’s did not come from nowhere.

Also see Out of place

woensdag 25 januari 2012


Is it inappropriate to speak of ‘the Judeo-Christian tradition’? One can hear that phrase more often nowadays, especially from the side of Dutch populist politicians. But at the same time other people protest against that combination of words, so it is not that obvious to make the connection.

The protest is quite understandable for who knows a bit about the history of Christian crusades, pogroms and discrimination against Jews. But I thought that phrase also to have something nice, because if after so many centuries two traditions discover their commonalities, isn’t that laudable?

But since last week I tend to find it a bit more inappropriate than before to use the combination ‘Judeo-Christian’ as a matter of course. That’s because someone who in earnest can not be suspected of wanting to enlarge gaps, held a lecture and made clear how wishful the phrase may be, while the endorsement by historical facts is completely absent.

The speaker was the renowned art historian Gary Schwartz, and he made his point by a closer look at the romantic image of ‘Rembrandt the Jews Friend’. He described the creation of that image - actually a myth - in the nineteenth century.

In France this was done by attributing to Rembrandt, in line with the French republican tradition, a kind of socially progressive character. This could be derived, according to the myth, from the unconventional artistry and humanity with which he painted his many portraits. In Germany, at the end of the nineteenth century, Julius Langbehn presented the painter as spiritually congenial with the Jews. Rembrandt’s affinity with the Jews would mainly lie in his love for the earthly and popular character of the Jewish tradition, not its intellectual aspects, which Langbehn did not like at all.

It seems that the core of the affinity between Rembrandt and the Jews in the twentieth century is sought in the combination of earthly simplicity, earnest and resignment to fate which is imputed to both parties. In that vein H.W. Janson in his standard work History of Art from 1962 writes that Rembrandt had a special sympathy for the Jews “as the heirs of the biblical past and as the patient victims of persecution”.

Schwartz told that when he went to study, the image of Rembrandt as humane friend of the Jews was almost unquestioned. And that maybe that image played a role in his choice for the study of the history of art. But paradoxically, precisely Schwartz was one of the first to have occasion to question the myth.

The turnaround for Schwartz came when he considered in more detail some of Rembrandt’s paintings, such as the Christ portraits and the Hundred Guilder Print. In the latter (see figure) a striking feature is that the immediate entourage of Jesus is portrayed as a bit more Dutch than the jawing bystanders in the periphery. Besides Schwartz points to a copy of that picture with an anti-Jewish poem written by Rembrandt’s friend Hendrik Waterloos. Schwartz thought: yes, that’s the way Christians view Jews, in the 17th century probably in a no less ambiguous way then in the 20th century. And there is little reason to believe that Rembrandt thought much different about Jews than his friends did.

The idea remains attractive: to believe that Rembrandt had much interest and affection for the Amsterdam Jews. And more generally: that Judeo-Christian is an integrated combination. But caution remains necessary.

Also see Rembrandt's Heads

dinsdag 17 januari 2012


What, up to now, the Palestinians did not manage to get done the Israeli women may at this time succeed in: the initiation of a certain collective self-reflection in the large secular Israeli majority. Indeed, the driving force behind the Israeli actions and demonstrations in recent weeks is the indignation about the status of women in the Israeli public domain.

From that indignation originated the demonstrations held in Beit Shemesh for the eight-year-old girl who on her way to school was spit on because she would be immodestly dressed. And the same indignation is behind the actions of liberal and modern orthodox women against segregated seating on the bus for men (in the front) and women (in the back). Equal rights for women equally is the reason for the efforts of women to to pray with the Torah at the Wailing Wall.

This type of conflict is hardly new, it lurks in Israel for decades beneath the surface already. It goes back to an at the background always-present tension between a secular majority and an (ultra-)orthodox minority, which has a monopoly on defining the Jewish spiritual identity.

The curious thing about this tension is that the secular majority is, to be sure, spiritually far removed from rabbinic thinking, but still allows the religious establishment to prescribe (sometimes literally) the law in many areas. For example on marriage, the construction of cemeteries for the more liberal religious currents, or the separation of men and women on the bus.

On the side of the secularists there always were pragmatic and sentimental reasons to take this position. By sentimental reasons, I mean a certain mental laziness, which tends to leave the control of the Jewish spiritual inheritance to those who dress in the most outdated way and act accordingly. That’s easy, it gives a sort of historical security and appeals to rather vague but at the same time attractive feelings of communal sense.

The pragmatic reasons have to do with the security situation in Israel. It has long been thought that the country could afford no fundamental discussion about the position of orthodox Judaism. That might disrupt the national unity which is so badly needed in the fight against a hostile environment, and even lead to civil war. The idea was: first to improve the security situation, only then to fight the internal battle.

But for some reason it’s happening yet, on a larger scale than before the battle with the religious establishment is entered into. Apparently the country can afford now, people feel safe enough. Or the ultra-orthodox group is now simply too big and too bold and crosses too many borders.

Opposite those border crossings the philosophical laziness of the average secular Israeli is no longer sustainable, whether pragmatically or sentimentally inspired. The situation is forcing many of them now to think for themselves, to determine their own position in spiritual matters.

If this is the prelude to more reflection in Israël on people’s own spiritual identity, that would seem to me very laudable. Resurrection from the lethargic spiritual indifference might then call into question that other Israeli indifference which looms large: the indifference for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the plight of the average Palestinian. Then the order of priorities is just reversed.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line