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