vrijdag 29 november 2013


To call something ‘holy’ is one thing. To call two rather different things ‘holy’ is something else. One may wonder whether the latter is possible at all.

If someone says: “My car is sacred to me”, and two sentences later: “My family is sacred to me”, don’t we want to know what is really most sacred to him, for example, if he has to choose between his car and his family?

Curiously, there seems to exist in Jewish culture something like a double sanctity. On the one hand, the traditional texts are clear: the commandments of Sinai are sacred, the people must be a holy people.

On the other hand, there is no other non-Christian ethnic group or religion that with such fervor has welcomed the breakthrough of the equality of people and peoples and human rights. Indeed, precisely as ethnic group the majority of Jews, since the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century, closed the ideas of universal liberty, equality and fraternity in their hearts.

Christians did so as well. Indeed, those ideas came up in a Christian society. But the dominant trend within that group turned out to be that one form of holiness (the Christian) was exchanged for the other (the humanist or Enlightenment ideology). Large-scale secularization was the result, without the problem of the double holiness.

For most Muslims double holiness is also not an issue. Enlightenment ideas appear not to be particularly appealing to them. Certainly not to the extent to which Jews were and are enthousiastic for them.

You can say, the reason why Jews were so enthousiastic is because those ideas helped to end their actual subordination in society and made possible their emancipation. I think that factor has indeed importantly contributed to the Jewish sympathy for the Enlightenment ideas.

But I am convinced that Jews embraced universal enlightened ideas also because they recognized a type of holiness that reminded them of the sanctity of their own particularistic Jewish tradition. Consider the task of improving the world (tikkun olam) or the high value assigned to a person’s life in that tradition.

Which is not to say that these two types of sacred things – the universalist and particularist – pass seamlessly into one another. Therefore, the question remains : Can two things be called holy at one and the same time?

Also see Mission Completed and Holy Fire

donderdag 21 november 2013

The new Middle East

Until a few years ago, the mental picture of the Middle East in the minds of many Western people was roughly that of a black spot at the height of Israel/Palestine, surrounded by white or neutrally colored areas.

Such was the dominant image of the Middle East in the West : that of generally benevolent, peaceful, interesting populations with a cancer in their midst, namely Israel . If people had no family or friends in Israel, they didn’t go there on vacation, imagine. Destinations such as Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAEmirates, on the contrary, were interesting and accepted.

That things is not that black and white has now become clear to most people. Syrians seem to be capable of mutual violence which in coarseness and size exceeds the familiar Israeli-Palestinian conflict many times. Egypt appears less to be the nation of right-minded, tolerant citizens than they and we had always thought it to be. The country experiences ever more and bloodier clashes between Muslims and Christians and secularists. And the primitiveness of Saudi Arabia is visible through all the cracks of its tremendous wealth.

That’s why in the public mind gradually another photo rises to the surface. This more recent picture of the Middle East shows, in my opinion, on the whole area more black and probably paints Israel a bit more in shades of gray.

Not because there’s actually changed much in Palestine and Israel. The occupation of the West Bank and the humiliations Palestinians must undergo are just as outrageous and unacceptable as they were. But the perception of the whole area has changed: there is less of indications in black and white, there is more sense for proportions and recognition of the violence that is present over the full width of the Middle East, affecting all residents of the area.

Of course, even now there are conspiracy theorists who blame Israel for everything, up to the behavior of Morsi (or Sisi ) and Assad (or the rebels ) to it . But where tourism – apart from the jihadists – to Syria and Egypt has decreased or no longer exists, the number of tourists to Israel is rising.

Also see Delegitimization

donderdag 31 oktober 2013


All religion is all alike, so you can regularly hear and read. Traditions that once were clearly defined today are more intertwined. More and more people assemble their own philosophy of life from a range of different traditions. The reason for that, says for example the magazine Happinez, is that people are looking for guidance and ‘something’ existential that transcends us. And some of that may be found in any tradition.

But sometimes one can – I think – surely draw clear marking lines between religions. A sharp line, namely between Judaism and Christianity, I came across lately concerning the question of where to look for deeper truths.

I read about the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. From him comes the statement “Why do you seek it outside of you? Why don’t you stay in your innermost and grab what is good in yourself? After all, you carry the whole truth substantially within you”.

This may sound familiar to us, not only from a knowledge of ancient or medieval mystics, but also from more contemporary self-centered spiritual training programs like Avatar or Landmark. The idea that the entire cosmos is rooted in yourself, is apparently deeply anchored in the Western genes.

This is different in the Jewish tradition. Judaism also knows the belief that each person is a cosmos in itself, according to the Talmudic statement that who rescues a person rescues a  world. But the fascination here is connected rather to the radical differences between the cosmoses, than to the radical otherness of another person.

A corollary of this fascination is the belief that one therefore does not carry the whole world  substantially within oneself. On the contrary: somethings keep slipping from me, namely that in which another person is substantially other indeed. In a way that I never could imagine beforehand.

With this approach the Jewish tradition creates its own puzzles and questions: how can we understand each other, how can we, with those radical differences, live together ?

It is clear, anyway, that the self is never self-sufficient.

Also see Holy Fire and Secular Varieties

vrijdag 25 oktober 2013

The Story of the Jews

“In the massive, five-part BBC series The Story of the Jews historian Simon Schama delves into the history of the Jewish people. He begins his story three thousand years ago with the emergence of some tribes in the land of Canaan, their holy book and the stormy relationship with their vengeful god. The next few weeks Schama will explain how the Jews fought - and still fight - for their country and how wars with rival nations, neighbors and domination by the Romans and other invasion forces have determined the history of the Jewish people”.

If this announcement in a Dutch newspaper is an adequate summary of Schama’s series, he would really disappoint me. To rule or to be ruled, that’s what Judaism is all about, according to this text.

Now this is not so remarkable in itself . There are plenty of cynical Darwinists who regard the struggle for power as the basic law of human existence and of the interaction of people with each other. And why would the Jewish people escape to that law?

But, with such a description, has everything been said about a people? In that case, you indeed can dismiss a people’s history as a story of violence and its god as vindictive. In my opinion, however, you then have missed many interesting aspects, at least in the case of the Jewish people. Because, what if a suchlike people questions the violence that it performs or is subjected to? What if a ‘vengeful God’ becomes a metaphor for a bloody reality that is experienced as capricious and despotic? And thus allows for staging stories that enable people to better cope with the violence they have experienced?

There is a truth that appears as gross arbitrariness and that one does not understand. But the Biblical stories make that truth a little more tangible and therefore a bit more suited to the perplexed reflective mind than the brutal violence itself. Thanks to the stories, with their arbitrariness and absurdities, one can relate to it somehow instead of being in the middle of it.

You can therefore come to love those stories and the reflection that they make possible. And, thus, even to love the God who features in the stories. Conversely that God appears to come to love us and to show us charity. Such is visible in the liturgy of the Jewish holidays with the recurring phrase “The Lord, the Lord, a God of mercy and compassion, slow to anger, generous in love and truth, showing love to thousands, forgiving sin, wrong and failure; who pardons”.

I am afraid that, without mentioning the human love of Torah stories and the divine love for man, the series will be but little interesting. Probably the key phrase of the Jewish tradition –   namely, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” – will remain totally incomprehensible.

Also see Polyphony, Committed Gossip and Kol Nidrei and other illusions

vrijdag 13 september 2013

Levinas and Habermas

An important feature that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and Levinas have in common is their love for reason, that is, for the human rational faculty. In Habermas, this is expressed because his book Theory of Communicative Action – which is often considered as his magnum opus – is about how people, guided by reason, can optimize their communication. In Levinas it is visible in his commitment to the achievements of the Western Enlightenment such as democratic institutions, fair jurisdiction and scientific institutes. The fact that, being a Lithuanian Jew, he was allowed to become citizen of such an enlighted society, namely the French, he during his whole life considered as a special privilege.

At the same time, both philosophers have their reserves with regard to that human rational faculty. Habermas sharply sees the hazards of reason-based economic and administrative systems in which humanity is compromised. And Levinas believes that human reason permanently produces illusions. This skepticism was fueled in both of them by their experience of the twentieth-century violence of Nazism and Holocaust in which they perceive the workings of modern thought. Both Habermas and Levinas had to work hard to to ultimately let prevail their love of reason over their great skepticism.

The skepticism with respect to reason was inculcated into Habermas by thinkers of the Frankfurt School like Horkheimer and Adorno, who he joined in the fifties. The Frankfurt School was very critical of the traditional idea of a rationality that can organize society in a good way, as it had been proposed from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century. Horkheimer and Adorno examined the reasonableness of reason itself and came to shocking conclusions. Reason has failed and rationality and its ideals have been reversed in their  opposite: in phenomena such as the Shoah the West shows its true face, which is that of oppression and violence.

Habermas endorsed many of the ideas of the Frankfurt duo, but at the same time struggled with the consequences. There was something self-destroying to their philosophy and it was inapplicable. They fought the status quo, but did not believe in change. Habermas did not want to see in Nazism the final collapse of a civilization based on reason. He gradually regained his confidence in human reason by formulating his own, this time applicable,  answer to the inky analysis of the Frankfurt School.

In his turn Levinas after the war – in which his entire Lithuanian family was massacred – looked for support in the Jewish tradition and found it there. Led by the brilliant Chouchani – a mysterious combination of clochard, wandering Jew and great scholar – he started to study the Talmud. Through him, Levinas said, he regained his confidence in the books.

The different ways in which the two philosophers have overcome their skepticism ultimately led to two rather different positions with respect to reason.

Habermas found a useful starting point in his humanistic belief that interpersonal dialogue provides an opportunity to bring about better understanding between people. This led him ia to the proposition that in addition to end-means rationality – thoroughly analyzed by the Frankfurt School – there is something like ‘communicative rationality’, which is essentially different in nature. The logic of end-means rationality proceeds instrumentally and considers everything it encounters, including human beings, as means for achieving its goal. The logic of communicative rationality is based on the uniqueness of human communication itself. When people enter into conversation with each other, they actually do more than merely use the other as a means or an instrument, because they assume that they are dealing with rational people, and these are goals in themselves.

Building on that premise, according to Habermas it is possible to design a methodology for good conversation, that is a conversation ethics. Habermas claims that a well-developed conversation ethics is useful for all people, and thus has universal validity .

As said, Levinas sought affiliation to the Jewish tradition. His interpretation thereof made him believe that the shortcomings of reason cannot fully be repaired by using reason. Because according to him all reason is blind and autistic in a way, and there is no special type of reason which would be an exception to that rule, as Habermas claims. So the answer to the deficiency of reason according to Levinas must be something outside of reason, something entirely different. By that he does not refer to music or romantics. No, he primarily sees that come from the experience that the other person with whom we deal at home or at work may regularly surprise us. He or she may at times appear to be quite different from what we could think of, and thus repairs our fabrications.

Levinas certainly also believes in the power of searching dialogue and the corrective effect  that may have. But not as much as Habermas does. Levinas does not believe that one can prevent miscommunication and injuring people in communication. For that the autistic and self-deceptive nature of reason simply is too great. So the large scale and detail of Habermas’ measures make a bit of a grotesque impression from Levinas’ perspective. You can achieve quite something with your own measures, says Levinas, but you will still keep being caught by the other person who shows you that, with all your good intentions, you’ve gone too far. Communication is not as malleable as Habermas believes. It remains a venture, says Levinas, and that sometimes strikes me as very true.

Also see Bristol

zaterdag 31 augustus 2013

Black Swan

In management and organization, like everywhere else, one encounters optimism and pessimism. The extreme pole on the optimistic side includes beliefs about the opportunity for personal development that is provided by professional work, about the thrill of perfect cooperation and about empowerment and democracy in organizations.

The extreme pole on the pessimistic side has a very cynical character. There prevails the idea that in organizations it is only about power and money and that a hypocritical facade of sweet talk and so-called people-oriented Human Resource Management is dressed up in front of it.

Of course between these two poles there are innumerable positions where optimism and pessimism are mixed with each other. Depending on what a person experiences in his work, the position he occupies in the spectre can change over time and even per day. Pessimism can turn into optimism and vice versa.

Now, what I think is that the shift from optimism to pessimism is more obvious than the reverse. Because it’s nice to start a job with a positive attitude and usually one starts that way. And then only a few bad experiences need to follow for expectations to dampen or to be turned into the negative. That’s the way one becomes ‘wiser’. The claim propagated by many managers that with them everything is all right can at some point fairly easily be pierced.

The other – that is: the pessimistic – claim is much harder to pierce. Perhaps because it pretends to be wiser, because it is based on life experience. And none of us wants pass for naive. Hence the popularity of the idea that everyone eventually is just bent on personal gain, that the struggle for life is the only constant in organizations, and that there is no escape from that awareness, unless you are willfully blind. This cynicism is much harder to fight, because it claims truth. It can not be easily adjusted in the positive direction.

This paradigm tends to reinforce itself because every incident where there is selfish action fits in. Different things are simply not perceived. Here happens what Popper calls verification: if the hypothesis for research reads “There are only white swans”, and you examine that by collecting evidence in favour of the hypothesis, you will find white swans indeed. Applied to our subject: if the proposition is “In organizations the law of the jungle is dominant”, and you're going to confirm that claim by seeking supporting evidence then you will indeed find proof of the dreariness of organizations.

But Popper says: that research method is not right, because by searching confirmation of the proposition you will find it, that is to say white swans and dreariness. Instead, you should look for what contradicts that proposition, thus a black swan. Because if you then don’t find anything, the proposition gains value.

The proposition of the white swans for most people has already been irreparably refuted by their perceiving a black swan. The statement “In organizations the law of the jungle is dominant” may, however, seem irrefutable as an iron regularity, if only because the dreariness prevents you from seeing anything else. Moreover, you run the risk of a reputation of unworldliness if you bring in something to the argument in.

Yet that proposition is, viewed from a Popperian scientific perspective, as weak as that of the white swans, because the right-of-the-fittest proposition has its black swans. If, inspired by the work of Levinas, you approach people in organizations asking if they ever feel ashamed about their organizational power they appear sometimes to say yes. A black swan. And if then you ask whether they therefore changed their behavior in some respect, sometimes they say yes once more. Another black swan.

donderdag 8 augustus 2013


Frankly, I do not get it, those outraged reactions from the Israeli government and other Jewish circles on the announcement by the EU of a boycott of products from the settlements. What I do not get particularly is the assertion that this boycot entails delegitimisation of Israel.

Delegitimization refers to statements by enemies of Israel who claim that the state of Israel has been founded on false grounds, thus has no right to exist and should actually disappear.

That you’re worried about that kind of statements, I get that. Here the raison d’être of one’s state is put into question, and you do not necessarily have to be Jewish to find that threatening. And also completely misplaced, because Israel is based on a decision of the United Nations and is therefore firmly established in international law as almost no other country.

But precisely this last observation makes those ‘deeply hurt’ sounds from Israel so incomprehensible. Because if you sincerely want to continue along in the international legal system you can not go shopping there and select your own favourites. You will have to play the game conform to the rules.

Fortunately, the rules are fairly nuanced: Israel’s legitimacy is not in question, but the occupation of the West Bank is illegal. The conclusions which are subsequently drawn on the basis of those principles are equally nuanced: boycott of Israeli products is not an issue, it is about products from the occupied territories.

By presenting boycott of the latter as an affront to Israel as a whole, Netanyahu turns it into an all-or-nothing game. This is dangerous: Israel therewith quits the legal arena and thus plays into the hands of the delegitimizators. It is no coincidence that the always somewhat anti-Semitic colored British academic circles choose for all: a total boycott of all Israeli academics from outside ánd inside the Green Line. And in the Dutch supermarket otherwise benevolent consumers may, to be sure, decide not to buy anything at all from Israel.

If you really want to prevent delegitimization you will have to comply with the legal system. Then you will constantly have to distinguish between what complies with international law and what does not. And also between products which according to international law are kosher and which are not.

But sometimes I’m afraid I might get it anyway. Namely, that the blunt all-or-nothing story has less to do with the fear of delegitimization, but comes from blind ideological fervor in Israeli government circles.

If so it is even more important to stay within the legal discourse which at the moment is practised by Europe in a pretty correct fashion.

Also see The Village of Norway and The Green Line and the Red Line

donderdag 1 augustus 2013


If you’re even a little sensitive to it, the ugliness of our manmade, built environment may unpleasantly take you by surprise. I am thinking of industrial areas, 1950’s-neighborhoods, modern agricultural complexes.

At the same time at such moments I have the idea that this ugliness of the built environment is a relatively recent phenomenon. Then I feel that there was a period, say up to about 1800, that everything man made was in harmony with the surroundings, and therefore nice. Whether it concerned buildings, tools, furniture or other artifacts.

Of course ancient shovels could be dilapidated and neglected and there could be smell in the streets and along the water. But that is different from the way plastic or concrete or galvanized steel detonate with the environment. The latter do not fit any longer into the natural environment, a break has occurred. It is true, beautiful effects may result from that, but the break is also the cause of the unimaginable ugliness by which we are surrounded.

Sometimes I fancy to recognize the phenomenon of fit and misfit at the level of a simple brick and the radiance that emanates from it. Actually, I've never seen a pre-nineteenth century brick that was not beautiful in the sense that it detonated with the environment. But after 1800 ugly, flat, industrial bricks come up. Fortunately also beautiful bricks are still being made, but by the increasing use of machines and technology a brick is no longer necessarily beautiful: some species of bricks are just ugly.

However, I do not know if my neat before-and-after-1800 schematism is tenable. In any case, it recently was pierced when I saw a medieval cityscape bearing the image of a port crane. The image was probably 15th century, but I found that crane an ugly structure: awkward and artificial, protrusive and technical. In short, it showed all features of ugliness. So, were cranes ugly already long before 1800? Or have they always been, from the outset?

dinsdag 30 juli 2013

Moral vacuum

Most of us, at least outside the bible belts, are not afraid anymore of an allmighty, punishing God who monitors all of our comings and goings. And as to the omnipotence of nature, we mostly feel (rightly or not) we manage to reduce it to acceptable proportions.

It feels like progress that we are more able to relativize the absolute demands of the high authorities of the past, so that there is no longer a massive set of rules that everyone must obey. We now believe that every person has a right to their own opinions and that other opinions should be respected, even if it produces a multitude of viewpoints.

But where does that progress bring us? Does this trend not necessarily end in a cacophony of opinions and touchiness, or otherwise in aimlessness and indifference?

The Dutch historian Thijs Kleinpaste treats that question. Indeed, he says, we accept each other's equality, but there are many indications that we hardly want to consider the implications. Because real equality would mean that we are aware of the tragedy associated with the collision of several conflicting but legitimate views. Plurality of views means that irreconcilable opinions rubb painfully against each other and that nevertheless you want to keep it that way, says Kleinpaste.

Michael Sandel discusses the same question. He notes that with the disappearance of the great moral legislators (God and Nature) also the moral debate has disappeared. Important issues are only addressed yet in a technocratic or administrative way. We are so aware of the fact that we think differently about the public good, that in the public domain we try to be as neutral as possible and set aside our moral convictions. Hence the embrace of the concept of the free market: that is supposed to be neutral also.

But meanwhile, Sandel says, people yearn for public debate on major ethical issues. He notes that with his students. During debate colleges their faces radiate because they feel included in a community by the debate. Precisely because of the respectful exchange of views, however different, a sense of belonging is created.

But apparently that happens too seldom, Sandel thinks. You might conclude that progress has not yet sufficiently advanced. We hang halfway: God and nature can not scare us any longer with absoluta, nor do they give us moral guidelines. But there is nothing yet which has come instead.

What could possibly take its place? What is needed so that we again get the feeling that something is at stake?

In line with what Sandel says, I think we can take each our own and other people's opinions more seriously. With the effect that we not just tacitly allow everyone to have his opinion, but that we more actively question each other's views. Not in a panting or sensational way, but definitely curiously and eagerly. Because strange enough, that creates commonality.

Also see Holy Fire, Polyphony and Secular Varieties

vrijdag 12 juli 2013


I do not know if it is true: that the Christian West has always opposed unworldliness and ethereal tendencies that can easily make a religion a bit vague or woolly.

This suggestion is presented in an article by the philosopher Ger Groot when he says that hostility to the world for Christian orthodoxy has always been a form of heresy. But in my opinion in the same article he provides examples to the contrary, such as the deep-rooted conception of truth as eternal and incorporeal, the love of theory, and the Christian hope of the final victory of mind over matter. Which last hope even in secularized form lives on in the pursuit of Stephen Hawking and other leading physicists to achieve a transcendent theory of everything.

One may wonder whether it is not rather the Jewish tradition that represents the resistance against that all-equalizing tendency which missionary religions like Christianity and Islam, but also the Enlightenment, incline to. It is quite a proposition which I formulate here, I realize, but it helps me to better understand a number of historical and social phenomena.

For instance, the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. It owed its genesis partly to the refusal of the Rabbinical Jewish leaders to accept the – in their eyes bizarre – Christian claims about a cosmic redemption. A bit more supportive evidence should be added to these claims, they reasoned. They were reproached for this sober rejection of lofty heavenly speculations, all through Western history.

From this perspective the earthly, rooted character of Judaism could, at that metaphysical level, at times also be a stumbling block to the secular successors to the lofty-theory-seeking Christianity – precisely because of its earthliness. That might explain why Hawking refuses to participate in the Israeli Presidential Conference of scholars. This refusal goes beyond a boycott of the settlements, which I could understand quite well. Rather, the absoluteness of Hawking’s total boycott demonstrates a metaphysical kind of discomfort with what Judaism stands for.

Then there is in somewhat obscure Western art circles the tendency to associate the Jewish people with the moon – and from there with night and materialism – and Christianity with the sun – and thus with celestial spheres and profundity. Now there’s possibly something right with that, because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and the Christian on the solar cycle. But still, such a theme and the unnecessary associations that go with it, are mainly a manifestation of the Western tendency to look to the skies.

Finally, when the current Pope as he took office warned that “the Church must keep far from worldliness, as worldliness is the devil”, that connects with foundational Christian texts like “You will be in the world but not of the world”. And then I am not sure whether Groots suggestion is tenable, and I feel confirmed in my view that appreciation of the physical and material world is rather a Jewish hobby.

I am sure, however, that my contention is not for  hundred percent true because in the Jewish tradition a certain kind of idealism thrives eminently well. Namely messianism, ie the expectation of a golden future for the world, not least in a moral sense. And not necessarily only reserved for the Jews but as a destination for all humanity.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line

vrijdag 21 juni 2013

For and against shame

It is not always convenient that Levinas – and I in his wake – works a lot with the concept of ‘shame’. Because although in a levinassian context that word has no negative connotation – shame can help people to break free from their illusions and mental limitations – nevertheless embarrassment for many people has strong unpleasant connotations.

In everyday language the word shame certainly cán evoke the just mentioned positive associations. But at least as often people’s first association with the word is negative in nature. Then applies: shame, that’s what you obviously want to get rid of. In such cases, it’s difficult to still use the word as having a potentially helpful meaning.

A striking illustration of the heavy negative load of the word is provided by the Dutch sociologist Goudsblom in the introduction to his memoirs. “A beautiful summer afternoon with a clear blue sky. On the street along the new Provincial Road a mother cycles with her son back in the basket. They are both good-humored, the mother cycles, the boy sings a cheerful song. Then they pass a few playing girls. One of the girls says: “Listen to that boy singing”. That’s all she says, but the boy has heard something scornful in her words, and he immediately stops singing. He feels caught, without knowing why”.

Goudsblom begins his memoirs with this event “because the fight against shame remained a constant in my life”. Here shame and the determination to finish it appear as a guiding theme and program for an entire lifetime.

A slightly different approach to shame I find in A.F.Th. van der Heijden. This writer also departs from the negative interpretation of the concept but he ultimately bends the negativity into something positive. Shame is a dismal experience which should be avoided as much as possible, but yet it may excite feelings of honor and encourage people to exceptional performance.

Following the death of his son Tonio, Van der Heijden notes that he has become grimmer and more pretentious. “From Tonio's death I have learned to never do something just like that. That has to do with a process that I call ‘enshaming’: things I used to be proud of have lost their luster. This shame challenges my creative ambition: to get above it, that’s what concerns me now”.

A third, more positive, view of shame is presented by Coen Simon in his book Guilt. About the things we do not need. Guilt and shame with him are no ‘sin’ or something that you have to overcome. They are implicit in the human condition and therefore things to be accepted. Because of the lack of an absolute starting point we never know how to act. But we pretend we know it, says Simon. And then get ashamed. There’s nothing wrong with that, it is a way to come closer to reality.

How is it possible that the associations with the word shame are so varied with  different  people? I think the differences in approach can to a large extent be explained because there are different kinds of shame at stake. In the more positive views of the word (as in Levinas and Simon) it is in fact all about think-shame: the realization that all thinking – that is: also your own thinking – produces illusions. Being caught producing illusions can certainly be painful, but it does not necessarily feel as a failure-shame, because illusion production is too much linked to the nature of thought itself, and thus to our human condition.

The other – more negatively experienced – kinds of embarassment involve failure-shame: you  perform sub-standard, at least below the level that you or others expect from you. You feel put on show in front of collegues and others. And that’s what you are determined to avoid henceforth.

I do not think it is wrong to use the word ‘shame’ to indicate both the feeling of embarrassment that occurs in the unmasking of an illusion, and the awkwardness which comes with underperformance. But it is good to keep in mind which type of shame can be associated only with negativity, and which type can also be interpreted positively.

Also see Hazardous and Something small

donderdag 13 juni 2013


Am I right to notice a kind of amazement in the coverage of the Israeli response to the Syrian uprising? As if there is no compliance with the image that exists of Israel, namely of being the imperialist aggressor or determined ally or adversary. ‘The Mossad’ did not sprinkle poison yet in President Assad’s wineglass. Expectations on the basis of the images do not materialize and therefore with some people confusion strikes.

First there was for many years rhetorical violence to and fro between Syria and Israel, while the actual situation was one of armed peace. This situation was enforced as strictly as possible by both countries, precisely for the sake of stability. When the revolt broke out in Syria Israel watched this with concern, because it is better to have for neighbor the enemy you know than one or many you do not know.

But early this year an Israeli military official told that his government would like to strengthen some groups of Syrian rebels, namely the more moderate and "friendly” ones which according to him exist between them.

On the other hand, in March the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army Lieutenant General Benny Gantz believed the risk of escalation is great. “We can only hope that the strategic reserves of the Syrian army including chemical weapons will not fall into the hands of the terrorists”, Gantz said. He found things were safer in the hands of the Assad regime.

At the end of May Israel warns Assad that the army “knows what to do” in case the much bespoken delivery of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles to the regime of President Assad would actually take place. At that moment Israel had executed already several air raids in Syria, by which probably arms supplies were destroyed that were destined for Hezbollah.

So, what is Israel’s position exactly? And should one suspect imperialist plans behind it?

Or could it simply be that Israel wants security and lets itself be guided by that consideration in its actions? It’s true, they exist: Israeli expansionists bent on expansion of Israeli territory. These are the settlers in the West Bank, which insidiously usurp areas. They are dangerous and unsympathetic indeed, and their violence can not be crossed off against barbarity – however large – which takes place elsewhere in the region. And it is also true that the Israeli army lets itself be used too often for their interests: settlers in the West Bank are considered citizens who are entitled to protection. Even though many officers and soldiers do not agree with their behavior.

But with regard to the Syrian question it are sober security experts who try in a cool and reasoned manner to keep the ammunitiondump as wet as possible. Fortunately that’s the the Israeli army’s core business.

dinsdag 4 juni 2013

Levinas and Arendt

It is possible to consider Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt as complementary thinkers. In this approach, the strengths of Arendt complement the weaknesses of Levinas. And conversely, the work of Levinas can make visible the blind spots in the work of Arendt.

For a weak spot in Levinas one can point to his political theory, or better: the complete lack of it. That is not to say that Levinas does not care about the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, or the public debate. On the contrary, he makes clear at several places the importance he attaches to these achievements, which he often refers to as ‘Institutions’.

But perhaps his frequent use of that term indicates the boundary of his interest. The existence of those institutions is of immense importance for him, but essentially related issues such as power play, public speaking and performance, or rhetorical communication can captivate him less. In any case, he did not write about them.

However, these latter elements constitute precisely the area where Hannah Arendt feels at home. The political praxis in the public space is for her a stage on which we realize ourselves and the communal life. At the political scene everyone gets a chance to show who he is, and there a multitude of voices can shape politics.

This is a catchy vision, especially because it assigns to democratic politics the task of doing justice to the individuality of people. And instead of arriving at a simplistic thinking in terms of majority-versus-minority it seeks after true pluralism.

But at the same time she perhaps has a bit too much faith in the possibilities of noise-free communication and of presenting oneself to others. That has to do with her deep-rooted confidence in reason to which mature, educated people have access and which can serve as infallible tool for the organization and content of the required communication.

Apart from the caveat that can be made that Arendt’s utopia requires highly skilled individuals, Levinas shows us this other blind spot in Arendt. Namely the fact that reason is perhaps not as reliable as she thinks it is. Because according to Levinas reason permanently produces illusions and therefore misunderstandings. Not because the people participating in politics and debates are malicious (although that could in addition be the case), but because reason according to Levinas has a somehow autistic character, which one cannot, again with the help of reason, eliminate just like that.

For unmasking of these illusions Levinas refers to the appearance of the Other, because he – the injured one – can make us aware of them. Maybe not necessarily by his appearance in public space, and with less glare than Arendt attributes to ‘showing yourself’. But with at least as much power and an equally large contribution to the plurality of the community.

Also see Totalitarianism is with us and Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further

woensdag 29 mei 2013

Totalitarianism is with us

Hannah Arendt showed in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem that totalitarian Germany partly relied on organizational skills and an oiled bureaucracy. Could this statement possibly be reversed by saying that organizations have a totalitarian character? This suggestion is frequently aroused indeed, even by myself. But how exact is that statement?

To begin with one must conclude that a number of parallels is absent. And fortunately so, because I’m talking about the physical violence, the murderousness and the racial discrimination which made Hitler’s Germany the criminal state it was.

But there is also a number of parallels which dó exist, too obvious so to declare the association of organization with totalitarianism as nonsense. And in many cases those parallels refer to aspects which Arendt mentions as characteristic of totalitarian Germany.

A key aspect which she points at is ‘thoughtlessness’. Frankly, I encounter that in organizations with frightening frequency. Too often I hear - otherwise sane-thinking - people say that they get rather unsympathetic or nonsensical things assigned from within the organization. And that they have unlearned to ask critical questions thereabout because they were punished for that already too often.

Thus, on a daily basis many people practice what according to Arendt provides the foundation for any totalitarian regime: thoughtlessness. They practice ignoring their own or other people’s critical voice.

And that happens in an environment which simultaneously is full of rhetoric. It’s all about transparency, making the most of yourself, following your passion, empowerment and other pep talk. Also in this respect a parallel may be discovered with a totalitarian regime: the ubiquitous presence of sweetly colored or inciting propaganda that in the last resort mainly serves to strengthen the grip of the bosses – serving the common good, of course. This rhetoric is an essential part of the control system.

A third parallel is located in the dire situation in which people may find themselves. “Resistance was impossible for the Jews”, Hannah Arendt says in the film about her that recently appeared, “but there is something between resistance and cooperation”. Though in organizations one’s life is not at stake, one’s mortgage, income, or pension may be. So a feeling of being clamped-in may definitely be there, and the job is to seek the vital room for maneuver. Perhaps we have too much to lose, especially in terms of rights and expensive houses. Maybe we are therefore more blackmailable than necessary, and we therewith unintentionally strengthen the totalitarian grip organizations have on us.

Possibly other parallels can be found in the ways in which unwanted persons are systematically blackened, isolated and ostracized. All these parallels together make the question of the relationship between totalitarianism and modern organizational life certainly relevant. Especially since they come together in a frequently encountered cynical view of organizations: these are simply inhuman machines and you better adapt to them. A daily training in this cynicism does not seem to be harmless to me.

Also see Levinas, Bauman and Business Ethics

woensdag 22 mei 2013

The heroic cosmopolitical Individual

To think in complete independence, free from bonds of a national or religious nature, recognizing no collectivity except humanity as a whole.

That’s what Hannah Arendt wanted, and she rightly may be called an icon of autonomous humanistic individuality and uncompromising universality. In the film Hannah Arendt which I saw the other week these features are dramatically expressed when she tells her old friend and Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld on his deathbed that for her the Jewish people means nothing, but his friendship does. He turns off hurt.

In intellectual circles in the Netherlands such a radically individualistic stance as Arendt’s for decades was viewed as an ideal. It was the image progressive Dutch people used to cherish about themselves. That image we, as universally oriented ethical missionaries, coúld have of ourselves because we in those days ignored the fact that also Holland is organized according to the arbitrary principle of the nation state. The underlying illusion – facilitated by our geopolitical insignificance – was that universal values and nationality can merge in an unproblematic way.

But for the attentive onlooker that idyll was pierced with some regularity. Thus, strictly humanistically spoken, a thinker in terms of global citizenship can have no peace with strangers quotas. Because a policy based on the inalienable rights and dignity of every individual can not distinguish between refugees, or view borders as absolute. However, that’s precisely what we do already for years, also because the streams of refugees are getting bigger.

Another example of persistent national-Dutch defensiveness concerns our loitering in acknowledging our guilt to Indonesia. Making excuses for our colonialist behaviour may be considered as the least that such a progressive minded people can do, but to this day it remains problematic. And not necessarily because of any financial implications.

Hannah Arendt definitely cannot be blamed for such double standards. She was not held back by any loyalty to say painful things about Jews or Americans or other groups, if her reasoning led her there. She braved the scorn and hate campaigns she then had to endure from those groups and took the loss of old friends for granted.

What you possibly cán reproach her is that she made such an independence of mind to the standard to which every thinker should comply. In this requirement show up, in my opinion, a form of utopian impatience and a deficient appreciation of the extent to which people simply need group identities.

For it is not that easy for people and populations to break free from ordering principles like ‘nation’ or ‘people’ or ‘religion’, and it is a serious question whether that actually is not too much to ask. You don’t have to be fascistic when you can only limitedly identify with an abstract, cosmopolitan citizenship. It could very well be an existential necessity for many people to primarily identify with a local or ethnic group, before the rest of the world is covered.

Besides, there are pragmatic motives for drawing boundaries. If you do not want to immediately take the suffering of the world on your shoulders, a clear unity like the nationstate provides the most effective scale for organizing (more or less) sustainable arrangements of social security, health insurance and wealth distribution.

From that perspective Arendt could be blamed for a certain severity. She wanted, despite her efforts to practice thinking within context, not to be disturbed too much by historically developed, or pragmatic and therefore random elements. Even though for its bearers these could be of great significance.

I honestly think that Arendt aims a bit too high. That does not mean that attachment to nations or peoples should still have the stone-carved shape of classical Zionism or German or British nationalism. Actually, partly due to the scale of migration and globalization, the rise is observable of various forms of multiple identity in which one culturally focuses on more than one country or nation.

This trend seems to me a valuable correction or addition to traditional identities and nationalisms. Indeed, I would say double – preferably conflicting – passports for one person is a good thing. But that’s still different from the boundless, almost abstract universalism that Hannah Arendt had in mind. Also see Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further and Hannah Arendt's Heroes

vrijdag 17 mei 2013

Thick and thin morals

Very often anti-Semitism is just vulgar. Historically, it is attributable to fear of an unknown,  different religion, or to jealousy because of a certain prosperity. And up to this day these factors are still effective.

That does not mean that anti-Semitism is easy to combat, but in a sense one can stand above it. Why should one not be different, why should one not be prosperous?

But it’s not always that easy. Certainly in the past there was more than prejudice or jealousy, then philosophical positions were at stake. An important one was the appreciation by ancient and Christian traditions of universalism in our thoughts and actions. For Socrates and Plato something was only true if a reasonable person thought so, because then it would be true for everyone. And for Jesus and Christianity charity is only authentic if it is performed to everyone, no matter how far away and how unknown.

Opposite this kind of love for globality any particularism is in a difficult position. And particularistic the Jewish people has always been and has always wanted to be in some degree. It constituted a clearly defined group, with its own identity, its own tradition and preferably its own country. That could not but collide with a philosophical tradition that never did with less than universal validity. And defense of its own particularism was certainly not easy because many Jews themselves were not immune to the beauty of a universal morality and law.

This ode to universalism is still widely sung. Recently by a Dutch columnist who wrote disparagingly about the morality of monkeys that would be focused only on the own group. The lots of attention for that morality under the influence of primatologist De Waal makes him fear for the universalism of the Christian message. And without universal Christian message, all morality will break adrift, so he fears.

But this love of universalism already for a long time lost the obviousness it once had. A few decades ago postmodern philosophers already put the Great Universal Stories on a side track. More important is that nowadays an increasing number of sober, modest philosophers have an eye for the fact that universalism as a guideline creates abstract, sterile, say thin relationships, which may well be worldwide, but at the same time lack content. The philosopher and historian Ankersmit says it like this: “If you are in solidarity with everyone, you’re with no one in particular; in fact then you are in solidarity with no one”.

More than before there is the realization that people and groups always have to start somewhere, in a limited, manageable context, in particularism. That’s to say in thick relationships, in which you feel comfortable, and of which you hope you can expand the circle of people that belong to it.

That this is so, could be inferred from the fact that nationalist feelings nowhere were so virulent as in universally orientated Christian Europe. It is amenable to consider this as compensation for too lofty universalist ambitions.

This plea for thick, rooted relationships is not a license to indulge in ethnic or racist prejudices targeted at other groups. But it is a plea for a revaluation of particularism which does justice to the complex reality and thereby can achieve more than a sterile universalism ever could.

Also see The Trap of universalizing Reason

vrijdag 10 mei 2013

Venus and Mars

Sometimes it seems like the traditional stereotypes and roles of men and women are back again. There was a period when it was fashionable for men to show their soft side and above all not to act macho. Emancipated, feminist mothers set the tone then and taught their sons to never to do anything that the girl does not want.

In the media a kind of new sexual firmness is the trend already for a while. Research shows that women want a real man again and no dish-washing and hoovering good guy. And too many men appear to have suffered from atrophy of their libido due to the imposed sexual correctness.

Should one conclude that the sexual correctness offensive failed? That attempts to curb the male sexual aggression ricocheted on an unshakable biological pattern? That would be a pity. Because I do not like coercive sexual correctness, but neither the traditional roles of men and women. I would regret if we were completely back to square one.

Gloom may strike the stronger when you add to these Western European trend a global trend. By this I mean the increasing sex segregation on religious grounds in many areas, measures imposed by men to curb the freedom of women, increasing rape in war zones from Bosnia to Rwanda and form Libya to Sierra Leone. Observation of these trends may give rise to the feeling that an already unbridgeable gap is only widening and cannot but bring more misery. Venus and Mars embroiled in a hopeless cruel and unequal struggle.

So, I am not optimistic at this moment about large parts of the world. But yet for our region things are somewhat different, I think. Because the new emphasis on male and female identity is much more nuanced than the former rigid roles were.

According to current discourse, there might be features that you can call female, for example a focus on the relationship or an attitude of restraint. And other features that you can call male, such as the wish to quickly grasp the moment of satisfaction. But then, these properties could very well be more evenly distributed about men and women than the stereotypes would have it.

Such views make the conversation about these things more open and complete. To get at this point we probably had to pass through the phase of the rigid feminist sexual correctness.

woensdag 17 april 2013

The dominant Economy

I grew up in a family where the men (except me) were economist and the women were mostly philosophically or socially interested.

My connection with the economic field has never been spontaneous, but it was clear from the start that the economy represents a relevant aspect of human existence. I have learned to appreciate the conversations about the importance of margins and profitability and robust financial management. And when I myself could not find employment in line with my historical interest the distance to the economic area was small enough for me to take the plunge into a guaranteed job in accountancy. For no longer than was necessary, of course.

However, dominant it remains, that economic thinking. And the bad thing is, it’s so obviously true. The once-again-with-both-feet-on-the-ground pretends to be the last word. Any attempt to define the world more broadly will soon go to the wall.

I suffered from that previously at home, but last week I experienced it again at the Nexus conference with the theme “How much is enough?”. Or actually, I witnessed that others experienced that impotence.

At the conference in Amsterdam Lord Robert Skidelsky (economist) gave a lecture on occasion of the appearance of the Dutch translation of the book which he and his son Edward (philosopher) have written under the title How much is enough? Money and the desire for a good life. In the book they advocate a shorter workweek for all (15-20 hours) and more opportunity for people to do what they themselves find important. And they wonder why we work ourselves to death only to gather more and more wealth.

After Skidelsky's lecture there was a panel discussion led by Rick van der Ploeg with as participants Skidelsky and three Dutch economists. Van der Ploeg presented to the participants questions like “What does the crisis mean for you personally?” And “What should be done to solve the crisis?”

The answers sooned turned out to be of a techno-economical nature. There was talked for more than half an hour about recapitalization, strengthening balance sheets and cutting expenditures for another ten years. Could you expect otherwise with a debate panel composed of economists and bankers, but, it appeared, not every visitor had come for that. The audience wanted more views in the spirit of Skidelsky, I think.

Anyway, while I was still busy with realizing that all this could only moderately interest me, a collective irritation was suddenly felt in the room. As if the economic talk passed by the heart of the matter or should urgently be associated with a broader view on society.

Someone shouted her discontent from the balcony down. I could not hear what she said, even when the second time she used a kind of megaphone. But, unmistakenly, this did not please her, and, judging from the applause, it didn’t please a large part of the audience either.

The panel chairman could not negate this. So, the first waiting behind the interruption microphone got his turn. But after treating his question the next person waiting had to show ten minutes of patience because the panel chair now started to broach explicitly philosophical themes indeed, but in doing so followed mainly his own interest. Then suddenly time had run out. That was a bit sad of course, and therefore the man was allowed to put his question as yet, with barely time for a response.

In those tiny minutes nevertheless a couple of interesting themes lighted up, such as the question why economy and compulsory work and wage labor yield the kind of oppressive associations they produce. Perhaps, suggested Skidelsky, one must distinguish between work content that others decide about for you, and work content that you determine yourself. And perhaps in talking about less work not a division between work and idleness is at stake, but between work designed for you and work designed by you.

These themes were only briefly touched upon. But I had liked to hear a bit more about them from those economists.

Also see Blowing Bubbles and Begging for Feed-back

dinsdag 9 april 2013

The Jewish Messiah

It is not very difficult to characterize the gushing and childlike enthusiasm about the new pope as somewhat simplistic. So, that’s what with conviction I did on my site last week.

But I must say that in a way I can understand such collective euphoria. There is certainly something attractive in the flickering hope that one person can change everything. I may sometimes catch myself on longing for something like that with regard to Israel. Could not Obama bring some movement, or Yair Lapid perhaps, from the inside?

Ultimately, the deus ex machina figure is definitely not unknown to us: the messianic figure who by his coming suddenly changes everything.

Indeed, with an eye on that expectation on Passover we put our door ajar and a cup of wine on the table for Elijah. By the way, it took me quite some trouble to find Passover wine from inside the Green Line.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line

woensdag 27 maart 2013

Thinking matters

Thinking is not innocent. Sometimes it might seem that way, for example considering the euphoria surrounding the new pope. He lives so frugally. He communicates so well. He laughs. He dares to let himself be called Francis!

And, well, for the rest he is sound in the faith and conservative in his thinking, but that does not seem to matter much. Based on all the other positive features of the new pope, many people hope already for a restoration of the image of the church and a Catholic revival.

But then, why did John Paul previously fail in this regard, although he had no less of these positive characteristics to his disposal? And why did John XXIII apparently not manage, indeed why did actually Francis of Assisi not succeed, by whom the present pope is inspired.

I think for an answer to that question the very church doctrine may be a major clue. Because it can be summarized as an example of dualistic thinking that takes the contrast between the high life of the spirit and the sinful life of the world as a starting point. In the words of Francis in the media: “The church must keep away from worldliness, because worldliness is the devil”. Angelic sexlessness versus defiling lust, generous poverty versus greedy materialism, that is the Gospel in its pure nutshell.

Try that in a modern world in which daily life is largely structured on the basis of broad acceptance of the exercise of property rights, sexual desire and other ambitions. And in which all efforts are aimed at making that happen in acceptable ways. Rejection of those impulses cannot but appear to modern people as bizar, the point is to lead them in the right directions. And in order to achieve that, citizens nowadays dispose of other and better resources than the pope's advices.

In parts of the world with fewer civil liberties than in the West, the simplistic religious message will still find an audience. But as soon as somewhere a self-conscious middle class of some importance develops and civil liberties are cherished, the traditional dualism will feel as obsolete. That may easily result in a masquerade or a Vatican banking scandal or sexual abuse, or all at once. There will then be no way of avoiding the world, you’ll have to go through it.

The first to understand this in the history of the West were the Protestants. Not without reason these – from the early period of the Reformation, especially in the Flemish and Dutch territories – came from the urban bourgeoisie. They were people who for the regulation of their existence were already used to a large extent to rely on their own thinking and organizational skills. The single, prescribed, simplistic ecclesiastical doctrine was widely perceived as too oppressive. Instead, the Protestants were searching for their own formulations of the doctrine which should allow more worldly life. Thus the members of the church councils were henceforward democratically elected and officials in the Protestant church were allowed to be married.

That essentially the old ecclesiastical scheme of objectively ascertainable good versus wrong was not left in Protestantism may appear from the fact that within the newly formed church communities coercion was no less severe than previously in the Una Sancta. But there were now several churches along each other. So there was, in contrast to the time before, something to choose. The Protestant scene may therefore be called more mature and more pluralistic.

My point is that these historical phenomena and developments make a trend visible, from more to less simplicism and from less to more complex and mature thinking. And that this trend, with an eye on the success of a religious community in the West, is a non-negligible factor. It cannot be reversed just like that.

If simultaneously I observe that the Roman Catholic Church finds itself - with a high level of evangelical dualism and simplicity - still at the primitive end of that historical and intellectual spectrum, and that the new pope ranges himself on that side; then those groups of cheering adolescents and nuns may move me, but I also see them stand a little outside history. Overjoyed that the new Elected-by-the-Holy-Spirit is going to  perform theír thinking.

Also see La Trahison des Clercs

dinsdag 19 maart 2013

A bit silly

What is striking in many forms of anti-Semitism today is that it is inspired by abuses in Israel. But in many cases the wording is such that the bias against Jews in general splashes off. If you say that certain situations in Israel show well that “they” are good for nothing, then it is clear that your departure point is that “they” are no good and that Israel supplies just the next piece of evidence for that.

I think such blatant bias in that direction is a bit silly. Just as stupid indeed as that other bias: “Gosh, I didn’t expect this from Jews because they themselves have been through so much”. Against all these biases, I would say: call things by their name. It’s just wrong to destroy olive groves, to build illegal settlements and to humiliate others. And that’s the way also many Israelis think about it.

In the list stupidities I found another such statement. This time from the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai commenting on the Dutch intention to provide products from the occupied territories with a separate label instead of the label Made in Israel. “It is strange that the Netherlands does not take steps to fully compensate Jews who during the Second World War have lost everything, but finds it necessary to mark Jewish products”.

What does he drag in by the head and shoulders, his statement goes in all directions. Again I would say, stick to the subject matter. But then maybe Yishai would have little to say, because the occupied territories according to international law simply don’t belong to Israel.

A bit stupid, that continued unjustified expansion of associations and prejudices, they frustrate any meaningful exchange of arguments. I’m a bit allergic to it.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line

woensdag 13 maart 2013

Begging for Feed-back

I recently read that in the short term we in the West must not expect revolutionary new technological inventions. Technological innovation will mainly need to build on existing technology and therefore productivity increase on this basis will be modest in size.

If that’s the case indeed, more profits and faster productivity growth are to be expected of social innovation. By which I mean the fixing of the energy leak which in many organizations exists because people do not or too little cooperate. And also I mean the stopping of the waste of money, time and talent which results from dysfunctional beliefs about management.

That energy leak and waste are usually not caused because employees or managers have bad intentions, but because the organization through budgets and powers is sometimes arranged in such way as to set people against each other instead of bringing them together. And that in its turn is caused because we are saddled with obsolete, dysfunctional beliefs about management and organization. These limit, consciously or unconsciously, our space for movement and improvement.

Take the views on management and leadership. In most organizations it are still mainly forms of hierarchical thinking and command structures that determine which concepts are associated with management. These include concepts such as power, competency, the ability to override others. And far fewer – apart from exceptions – a serving and facilitating attitude.

Then this is what you get: managers who get a kick out of their decision-making-power and who in intimate moments don’t keep secret that they are in that position because they cannot stand that others tell them what to do. But who at the same time do not but expect that others are able to do precisely that.

And you get relatively many frightened employees, who have effectively been silenced.

That pinches of course, and those managers may as well feel the pinching. They largely, despite their formal power, fail to achieve what they aim at. And they feel that more is needed, and – above all – something else: they should engage in genuine consultation with “their” people. But at this point also impotence enters the story: they have to listen but because of the way they have organized things and because of their character structure that does not work properly. They beg for feedback, but what follows is a deathly silence. Touching, almost.

This is not managable any longer by hurling in a top-down way some more behavioral science and communication tricks into the organization. Here another way of social interaction is required. Which justifiably may be called: social innovation.

Also see Trust

donderdag 14 februari 2013

Committed Gossip

Lashon hara, or speaking evil, is expressly prohibited in the Jewish tradition.

But that does not hold for gossip, because if that were the case large parts of the Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmud suddenly would become incomprehensible. Actually, on many places in the text nothing else is done but that. In my idea gossip is even a core element of Jewish learning.

But then the meaning of ‘gossip’ must be properly understood. I understand by it: to become  agitated about the behavior of somebody else, to say that something is not done, to be indignant, to find something unfair – or the opposite –,  and that in a passionate way. And aloud.

I think many Jewish texts and commentaries are born from that kind of feelings generated by the behavior of patriarchs or other fellow compatriots. There is plenty of time taken to comment on that behavior and those deeds, approvingly or disapprovingly. I call it gossip, but without any negative connotation. On the contrary, a community worthy of the name can not do without. In good family relationships or social clubs, the conduct of its members múst be subject to debate. Because how else do you get to know what you believe in or not? How else do you achieve moral clarity? Where else do you get your prophets from?

There is a lot of judgement going on in Tanach, with respect to several Biblical figures. Jacob for example praises some of his children. He calls Joseph a fruitful vine, Jisachar is a strong ass, and Naphtali a hind in freedom. But he speaks less flattering about a number of other sons. Dan asserts the law, but he is like a viper on the path. Benjamin is called a ravening wolf and about Simon and Levi: they contrive nothing but violence.

The latter statement consequently triggers one after the other commentator. They never seem to stop talking about how this should be understood. For example, Nechama Leibowitz in her commentary on Genesis: “Jacob took a very grave view of his sons’ conduct. Many decades after the massacre of Shechem, the Patriarch, on his deathbed, severely reprimanded Simeon and Levi for their dread deed, though all were now safely and comfortably settled in Egypt. His indignation at the crime does not seem to have diminished, with the passing of time. On the contrary, it seems Jacob’s first reaction is eminently practical. They had placed the whole family in danger, a minority surrounded by hostile tribes, far outnumbering them. But on his death bed, no such consideration could exist. The House of Israel was secure, enjoying the protection of the Egyptian viceroy. His anger is now directed at the cruelty and injustice of their deed”.

Another fragment which is much commented on concerns an imputation in Exodus to the address of the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt: “Thus they stripped the Egyptians”.  That's quite a statement, commentators cannot easily ignore it. So there is much written and said about it. And fortunately, the text offers various clues to a relativization of the theft, though I sometimes prefer the unsalted imputation to implausible excuses from later generations.

But it may be clear that in many of the discussions this question is at stake: did it go decently or not? If gossip is conceived this way, then it is allowed. I call it committed gossip.

Also see Squabbling

vrijdag 8 februari 2013


Vaguely I was aware of it, but I never realized it as precisely as described by Stuart Isacoff in The Octave. That the establishment of our tonal system – in which we modulate through all keys back and forward and in doing so produce the most beautiful musical constructions – is the result of a major battle, and that this battle proceeded along theological and philosophical lines. The story of that struggle can be read as a sound built version of a larger story. If you want: a liberation story that has interfaces with the emancipation of Western man from the tutelage of the Greek classics and the Christian church.

The story begins with ideas and with a problem. The ideas include the view – based on Pythagoras and Plato – that music is the reflection of a universe which is organized according to harmonious mathematical relationships. Music therefore must be composed of pure intervals such as the perfect fifth (3:2) and the perfect fourth (4:3).

The problem with this was that Pythagoras’s formulas left no space for some very popular harmonies: the major thirds, the minor thirds and their counterparts, the sixths. These intervals were so popular because they made music more intimate, more sensual and more expressive. But their use generated a lot of discussion, because according to opponents these intervals did not fit into the the world order as proclaimed by Pythagoras and the Church.

There were quite some solutions for this problem. They were found in the musical practice and consisted in more or less cheating as to the purity of the intervals. With stringed instruments this could be done because the musician has to pitch the tone himself and always can intonate slightly higher or lower. Singers could do so the same by constantly adapting their pitch to make the different intervals sound together as harmoniously as possible.

These were pragmatic solutions in which the problem was not calked and which did not challenge the guardians of the strict mathematical order. But these solutions were half-baked, because singers were accompanied by organs and there was music written for strings with harpsichord accompaniment. And with keyboard instruments such as organ and harpsichord one can not intonate while playing as it can be done with a voice or a string. Instruments must be tuned properly in advance, and when you want to play thirds on them then you have to consciously tune them differently than when only fifths and quarters are to be heard.

This technical feature left less room for pragmatism, the question of tuning had quite some theoretical aspects. That’s why it soon attracted the attention and the interference of more or less self-appointed guardians of the divinely established order. And these had fundamental objections against any infringement of the pure mathematical relationships.

Meanwhile blood was thicker than water and musicians tried all kinds of tunings on their  keyboards. Concessions were made as to the purity of the intervals for the sake of the possibility to unlimitedly interconnect a variety of fifths, fourths, thirds and octaves without the music getting terribly false.

The opponents were not amused. The 16th century music theorist Zarlino Gioseffo believed, like many others, that singers naturally sing pure intervals and that the new tunings threatened the world’s unity. He was offended when Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo Galilei) found that singers in practice go in one piece through different tunings because they are constantly looking for a beautiful harmony. Galilei reproached Zarlino that he fought for an illusion and that the music had to be completely freed from the tyranny of the inviolable numbers.

Rousseau also took position in the debate and he chose for his own variant of the cosmic order. Therein music figured as a primeval force that definitely had to be defended against the refined and therefore decadent experimental tunings. Even Newton, who in his physical work was brave enough to describe the world as it is rather than as it should be according to tradition, showed conservative here: “It is unworthy of philosophers to interfere with the pure proportions” he thought.

In particular, in the appeal which is made here to the sanctity of a divine natural order – against the praxis actually experienced or sought by people – a parallel can be drawn between what happened in the musical area and what in other areas is still happening. I am thinking of some representatives of the established order that label gay sexuality as unnatural and therefore as undesirable. Or of managers who barely pay attention to the actual undercurrents in their organization because their self-invented order leaves no room for them.

From this perspective one could call the musical struggle against the illusion of purity and pro  the multiplicity of lived practice an exemplary European project. And fortunately that struggle  ended well. In the late 17th  century the physicist Daniel Bernoulli was able to show that each tone produces overtones and that the series of overtones ‘above’ the basic tone of a string is much larger than originally thought. Isacoff: “These additional sounds are an endless expansion of the range with tones that are generally not harmonious. So all vibrating bodies float in a sea of dissonants. The idea that nature has a preference for pure harmonies was, it appeared, permanently expelled from the scene.”

Also see Order

dinsdag 22 januari 2013

Collectivity and Individual

The relationship between collectivity and individual can be complicated. In the film Life of Brian the crowd shouts out oudly “We are all individuals” and so precisely confirms its herd character.

With (other) Jews it may be the other way round. They belong together in a shul or in Israel and pretend to be linked to each other by a shared tradition but then don’t miss an opportunity to emphasize their own individual positions.

It is interesting to observe the relation of the individual versus the collective through history for both the Jewish and the Christian tradition. Then it appears that the two traditions on this theme often are out of phase with each other, but at other times nicely match.

For the period - some two thousand years ago - in which the equation can be made for the first time, I would say that they are out of phase with each other. In the Jewish tradition learning is strongly emphasized, as a duty incumbent upon each individual. In the Christian tradition collective confession of the new faith is promoted under the leadership of clerics who tell the people what that faith must entail.

From the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance Judaism and Christianity in these matters moved towards each other. In the West humanism came to blossom, with great attention to the development and independence of the individual. This trend was only strengthened by the Enlightenment in the 18th and Romanticism in the 19th century.

Many Jews felt attracted by this development and joined with enthusiasm in the pursuit of greater individual freedom and fuller citizenship of the surrounding culture. The struggle for emancipation of the Jews was matched by that of other groups in society and the bourgeoisie as a whole.

In our own time, the developments seem to be somewhat out of phase again. Christians complain that the collective story is lost, that society consists only of loose individuals. What exactly connects these individual citizens to each other, according to the philosopher Marcel Gauchet, and how they relate to the state has become subordinate to the defense of their individual freedom. Which is not to be limited in any way.

Conversely, in the twentieth century Jews rediscovered, already before the Holocaust, their collectivity. This resulted in the Zionist movement and the creation of Israel. It may be true in general that, still, Jews don’t easily allow others to tell them what to do, not even their fellow Jews. But meanwhile, the Jewish tradition is alive and Israel, with all its shortcomings, is a thriving country. Paradoxically a certain connectedness stands out there.

Maybe it’s the connectedness of everyone who does not let himself be silenced: that creates a bond. But if that’s the case, then the Christian and the Jewish world at one point will be back in line with each other. Because, to wish that your voice is heard, isn’t that a universal human desire? Or as I heard say David Grossman recently: the least which must be awarded to each human being is the opportunity to speak in his own words about his own things.

Also see Parrhesia

donderdag 17 januari 2013

Winter and Wilderness

According to many authors the desert plays a central role in the creation of  Jewish monotheism and thus of the Jewish identity.

One can think of Moses, who gets his first message from the Eternal when in the wilderness He  speaks to him from a burning bramble bush. Consequently  Moses leads the 40-year  groupidentity-forming process of the journey through the desert, and there on Mount Sinai receives the Ten Commandments.

Later in the Bible, after a 40-day trek through the desert without food or water the prophet Elijah eventually reaches  Mount Sinai where he is gifted with an appearance of God. He  shows Himself in an  abstract desert-like  manner not in storm or earthquake or fire, but in a gentle breeze. His successor Elisha also passes a while in the desert.

For North-West Europe a completely different identity shaper can be indicated: winter. At least, that’s what Adam Gopnik says in his book Winter. Five windows on the season. According to Gopnik winter played an essential role in the development of the self-consciousness of young European nations. Especially romantics in northern countries such as England, Germany and Russia experienced deep awe for mysterious virginal white plains and let themselves be inspired by fairy tales and heroic sagas which play there.

Gopnik’s attention to the European winters appeals to me, but not because of their romantic nature. I am struck rather by a kinship that the winter has with the desert, which kinship I find in the wintry stillness, in the halt of time when the water freezes and all life is covered with white. That to me is the European equivalent of subtropical deserts. In either situation stillness, if not hardship, occurs by which man can  be brought in a mood of repentance.  Not without reason white is the color of Yom Kippur.

Those  situations have another feature in common, namely that you can long to them: to the severity of dry heat or biting cold, probably because of an intensified internal consciousness that may be caused by them. That desire comes up, at least with me, whenever we live through the type of half-hearted ailing winter we had up to now this year.  Then you may be  looking for hard ice.

But Western culture is sufficiently steeped in the Bible so as to make the desert, besides the winter, figure as a spontaneous metaphor for inner edge. This is evident when a Dutch author gives his impression of an everyday car-ride from Amsterdam to The Hague:  rippling, messy and crowded. “I passed  the junction, then Wallmart, Primark. I stood behind a huge truck in a short traffic jam. At the truck’s back I read  that I could call if I was not satisfied with the driver. But the man did nothing wrong, though he stood still. A forklift, loaded with pallets, drove on the sidewalk. A cyclist, now faster than the cars,  passed  us. He had a parcel under his elastic straps, but what was in it? Everyone was busy with something, on their way somewhere. Everywhere houses, offices, megastores, people working behind windows. You know what it is, the poet Mustafa Stitou recently said to me: Holland has no desert.”

Also see Scapegoat