maandag 16 juni 2014

That difficult Levinas

It is often said that Levinas’s philosophy is so difficult. “I just do not understand what he’s up to”, thus people say.

I think it’s not so bad with that difficulty of Levinas. And that, if yet his texts are experienced as difficult, that has more to do with the counter-intuitive, wayward and uncomfortable character of his thinking.

That’s because for many of us there is a set of daily and taken for granted assumptions that pass for logic. And at those assumptions Levinas puts question marks. Substantially that is not so complicated, upon closer inspection the logic of his questioning is often more persuasive than our common everday logic.

The problem rather lies in the counter-intuitive nature of Levinas’s logic. Because that  sometimes stands at right angles to the logic of self-preservation. And precisely this latter logic in social and societal interaction feels primarily as indubitable. When a philosopher suggests an opposite position that feels weird.

I give a few examples of the usual kind of advice, incentives and endeavors which, judging from their everyday appearance, are apparently considered by us as logical. For each example, I want to show that the assigned logic may turn out to be false, and that exposure of these appearances is not that difficult. The real difficulty, thus will be the conclusion, is obviously somewhere else, namely in emotionally allowing a different logic.

A first example is the promotion campaign of a course “The Art of Excellent Manipulating  and Steering” as you may regularly come across in newspapers and management magazines. With a promotional text added, like “Take this course and from now win every discussion!”

From a purely logical point of view, this last outcome is actually impossible. Because if that is promised to all students of the course and they are going to argue with each other, then the promise will not be able to come true. So, such an endeavor is doomed to create as many problems as it solves. It’s not hard to see that.

But what also resonates in the phrase “Take this course and from now win every discussion!” is the underlying value system, and that is persistent in a way that we will not easily free ourselves from it. Because in that value system the idea is deeply rooted that people constantly are one another’s competitors. People are wolves to each other. When Levinas puts this ‘ontology of war’ into question, we hesitate whether we will follow him. He then soon becomes too difficult.

A second example is the corporate culture that in many organizations we together create by exhorting each other  to ‘remain professional’, ‘to hold off emotions’, to work methodically and especially not to talk about difficult things.

It is not difficult to see that workplaces in this way become sterile places where contacts fade to a sham, and the heart of the matter disappears. That is a logical conclusion, which is confirmed by many studies. Hence the many management books that come with the recipe: fight the ‘corporate silence’, seek more and especially real communication and contact.

These obvious matters are what Levinas aims at when he talks about the venture of real communication. And he might again be difficult to follow when he says that good communication will always involve elements of shame and guilt, if at least that communication is to be worth the name. So here immediately Levinas is getting more difficult again.

But for this latter thought he suddenly gets support from an unexpected corner. A magazine for management ethics recently published an article stating that the willingness of leaders to apologize to their employees for mistakes demonstrably has positive effect on the emotional health of employees and on mutual relationships.

Levinas is just as difficult as making excuses.

Also see Hazardous