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