zaterdag 29 maart 2014


To remain equanimous and unperturbable, preferably under all circumstances. Thus was, traditionally, described what philosophy was about and so it still is by some.

Last week I was reminded to that view in an interview with the French philosopher and sociologist Frédéric Lenoir. He told about his admiration for the stoic Dutch Holocaust-victim Etty Hillesum because she had reached the situation that philosophers always considered to be supreme, namely the one in which nothing can hurt you deeply anymore. “Philosophers have always said, since the early Greeks: happiness does not depend on the situation you are in”. It is easy indeed to recognize in this statement Socrates’ goal of equanimity which he preached up to his poisoned cup, and which is the goal of many other philosophers to our time.

I can very well understand that man, in the midst of so many earthly turmoil and instability, looks for a kind of invulnerability. Still, I'm glad there are philosophers who questioned that desire for absolute certainty or exposed it as a pursuit of power. Nietzsche started doing so, and the twentieth-century postmodern philosophers followed in his footsteps. But these trends are far from being taken seriously on a broad scale. May that be called true philosophy, it is asked then. Because, true philosophy strives for absolute certainty, doesn’t it?

The problem is that the latter aim produces, besides certainty and safety, also a lot of nasty things, mostly of an uncanny character. I think of the deep-rooted tendency in our society  to objectification and measurement which can give our work floors and manners the sterility that many periodically suffer from. I think also of the extent to which people live alongside each other, safe but untouchable, and more chilly than they might want.
This way of communicating, which has learned not to touch core issues any longer, could very well stem from that age-old philosophical program that tries to reduce our touchability. With its help we have managed to develop to a high level the art of communicative immunity. The result is a safe and efficient society, but one that sometimes is nothing about any longer.

But how, then, is that communicative poverty to be related to Etty Hillesum, with whom I started this piece? Isn’t she an icon of openness and engagement with what was going on around her? Yes, maybe. If it is not the case – as some said of her – that she idolized her teenagegirl-like commitment; so if her engagement was sincere, then that matches obviously very well with the widely sought immunity.

You could say that the Etty Hillesum’s sacrificial heroism (as also eg Mother Theresa’s), and the communicative sterility of our behavior are two sides of the same coin. Both are strategies for achieving immunity, and the one succeeds through total surrender and the other by screening off touchability.

What falls out is the daily mix of vulnerabilities, in which injuries and excuses, dullness and success alternate. The trivial touchability gets orphaned . That is to say, to simply exchange about things that matter becomes problematic. It is true, there is no heroism involved in such exchange, but by rich and warm communication it's that which may hold off sterility.

Too few philosophers know about this. I cherish those who make it a subject of their speculations, and I continue to call them philosopher despite everything.

Also see Taylor, Levinas and Emptiness, The Trap of Universalizing Reason and Progress after all