woensdag 23 december 2015

The Ellips Revisited


Of all of them it was great that they were there last week during the debate in De Rode Hoed on whether the ban on Spinoza should be lifted. The representatives of the Jewish Orthodoxy were brave in participating, and it was nice to have the two atheistic philosophers attending. But for me the greatest added value was in the renowned historians who devoted their attention to such a thorny and complex issue as the ban which the Board of the Portuguese Jewish community in 1656 issued on Baruch Spinoza.

The issue is thorny because Spinoza nowadays is recognized worldwide as one of the most brilliant philosophers of all time, while a Jewish community like the Amsterdam Portuguese Jews also would like to appear a bit brainy. Then it does not help that you threw out such a brilliant member.

Simultaneously, the issue is complicated because even brilliant ideas are not necessarily harmless. An important prerequisite for a stable status quo (social, religious, political) is that there is not too much overthrown by thinking, because that could disrupt society.

Spinoza’s philosophy was very explosive indeed and the historians gathered in De Rode Hoed had a keen eye for the necessity which the Portuguese community felt at the time to contain the dangers of that thinking. If only to avoid irritating the Dutch Republic that tolerated the Jews.

By weighing all these factors, the outstanding historians managed to achieve a balanced and mild assessment of the different players in this drama: the Portuguese Jewish community, Spinoza, and later generations who worried and worry about the ban.

But does the relativist, understanding attitude of these historians mean that the question actually remains unsolved in our stomach? The historian Jonathan Israel made it clear that that does not have to be the case: you can very well, after sketching the intricacies of the complex big picture, then draw a few bright lines. He did himself as follows.

He noted that the most often proposed solution to the problem of the ban on Spinoza is: lifting the ban. Thereby there is discussion about who might do that. Would only the Portuguese Jewish Community be authorized because it has pronounced the curse, or is it something of the whole Jewish community?

Jonathan Israel then chose not to go into that question but to ask another: Who cán, from the perspective of mental fitness, lift the ban? If you ask that question it becomes, Israel says, quite clear that Orthodoxy, whether Sephardic or Ashkenazi, is not able to do so. In substance, Spinoza’s thought is after all, by his rejection of a personal God and supernatural revelations, still too subversive and threatening to them.

At the same time it is, according to Israel, also perfectly clear that the Liberal Jewish movement is up to the task. Indeed, it should take up the task (at least in substance, for in a strictly legal sense that is not possible) because the movement – unlike Orthodoxy – explicitly lets itself partly be inspired by the value system of the Western Enlightenment. And then you can not get around Spinoza, with his keen advocacy of democracy, tolerance and freedom.

I think Israel is right. For indeed, the Liberal Jew lives in two worlds, and has two focal points, which is sometimes expressed as ‘the ellipse’. These foci are Jewish tradition on the one side and the Enlightenment on the other.

Living with two focal points is certainly not easier than with one focal point, but in Israel’s and my own vision it is more interesting than if you keep at one focus. This requires a strong self-awareness, and I am glad that liberal-minded Jews in the Netherlands received a substantial helping hand from an English top-historian.

Also see Levinas and Spinoza

woensdag 9 december 2015

Empathy is morally neutral


The quality ‘empathy’ scores heavily nowadays. Young people are trained in it in their courses, writers call upon us to imagine what it is to be a young jihadi and in many vacancy texts candidates are expected to be able to listen empathetically.

This appreciation of empathy seems to me a good thing. The ability to place oneself in another’s position is a social skill of the highest order, and a lot of personal and business interactions would be more comfortable, if the people concerned would show some more empathy.

But saying that implicates also the demarcation of empathy’s proper place: it is primarily a social skill with pleasant social impact, nothing more and nothing less. I think that’s important to emphasize, because around me I also detect a tendency to regard empathy as a crucial moral virtue. And I find that confusing because empathy itself is morally neutral.

This may become evident from the example of torturers who are generally very empathetically gifted. They can form a clear picture of the kind of pain that they inflict to their victims. On that basis, they can rise to great creative heights in inventing ever more sadistic torturevariants. Thanks to their empathy.

Also to authors the ability to empathize can not be denied. But the messages they  spread with its aid by no means always have moral weight. Thus Willem Frederik Hermans was enabled by his empathy to write depressing misanthropic works, and to engage into vitriolic exchanges with critics. More megalomaniac writers like Harry Mulisch used their empathy especially to the honor and glory of himself.

It is certainly true that many writers use their empathic ability to understand other people. But for that too it holds true that better understanding things and people by itself is morally neutral; it can then be used in ethical ánd non-ethical ways.

Íf with someone empathy gives a positive moral effect, it is because of the link with another property. You could say that such a person is ‘sympathetic’, but that is yet another vague word. Ultimately, the real question is whether someone manages to establish a link between what he perceives in somebody else (especially in the category of pain and injuries) and his own violence, and then feels uncomfortable. The latter is crucial.

Also see Levinas and Empathy

donderdag 3 december 2015

Levinas and Wittgenstein


The philosopher Bob Plant devoted a book to the comparison of the philosophers Wittgenstein and Levinas. In it he arrives at some remarkable parallels, which are surprising because Levinas in several of his works denounces what he calls ‘formal logic’, a philosophical genre brilliantly practiced by Wittgenstein in his early years.

Indeed, I for myself see more similarities emerge in the second half of Wittgenstein’s life, when he turned away from strict logic. There themes start to become apparent that I recognize from the early and middle period work of Levinas. So, we are talking here about the late Wittgenstein and the earlier Levinas.

One of the parallels that I note there between the two philosophers is attention to human vulnerability and pain. These phenomena are fundamental in their eyes, Levinas ánd Wittgenstein see them as crucial in the interaction with other people.

In the case of Levinas this is evident in his attention to the potential violence of thinking for someone else. In doing so the thinker can cause an injury with the other, by transgressing his boundary too far. Simultaneously Levinas says: the thinker can note that injury, and therefrom recovery of the relationship may follow.

Wittgenstein, in turn, discusses the obviousness of pain. First of all of his own pain, to himself: “I can not be mistaken if I say that I have pain and that is why I can not be sure of my pain.” He means to say: this is so close that it is not a matter of knowing for sure.

For someone else’s pain the situation may be different, yet few things are as convincing as perception of pain in another. “Just try, in an actual case, to doubt the fear or the pain of another.” For Wittgenstein signaling that pain is as directly as it is for Levinas.

Another parallel is in the reluctance of both against generalizations. The late Wittgenstein does not like the universal explanation of phenomena. He does not draw general lines around essences, and condemns the disregard for the individual case with which his own early work was imbued. He is quick to point to differences between things and between people, which is reflected in his statement: “I'll teach you differences”.

Similarly Levinas in his early and mid-term periods describes phenomena that are not universal, such as responsibility for the other and think shame. These phenomena do not occur anywhere and anytime with anybody, but may or may not occur, with some people and not with others. Here Levinas likewise shows a break with essence thinking.

A third parallel is found in the mutual appreciation of obviousness which is rather  located at the surface than in the deep. For example, in dealing with other people according to Wittgenstein our perception of external phenomena suffices to read what is in someone. You really do know for sure when you see someone suffering pain, for that you don’t need any ‘intermediary act of recognition’ such as other philosophers suggest.

Besides pain, for Wittgenstein also someone’s face is a potential source of evidence to which no subsidiary means are needed. “A facial expression – or the image thereof – tells us more about a person, then when we try to describe what goes on in his head. The face is the soul of the body,” Wittgenstein writes.

This is similar to the importance Levinas attributes to ‘the human face’. Not for nothing that was the title of a book by which Levinas was introduced in the Netherlands in the sixties.

Finally, there is a common shortcoming that both thinkers are reproached for by critics. Namely that their work has little political relevance. That accusation may, I think, be adequate. Probably that’s what you get if you’re obsessed with the question of what is good, truthful communication. Because that’s an obsession they did share indeed.

Also see Wittgenstein as Talmudist

maandag 30 november 2015

Europe is my country


Defining one’s territory is still, in spite of a high-minded kind of idealism that discards that as something barbaric, a legitimate action. And it’s almost hypocritical to, on the basis of your own lofty ideas of a borderless world, not to demarcate borders yourself but to ask that from your neighbor (ie Erdogan).

By the way, demarcation dóes work indeed, despite the skeptical voices who deny that. Just look at the shift in flows of refugees with each new fence that is placed.

If still – as the diehard moralists among us – you keep having problems with drawing borders, I would like in compensation to remind that demarcation now no longer needs to take place in each country but can be done in larger formations, eg, for Europe as a whole. Due to which we learn to think in larger units and possibly to once handle a world government. Wouldn’t that be nice?

But now it’s not like that. It appears that every country now is being thrown back on old boundaries, while we do feel that they are not functional anymore. Here we are hampered by a late awareness of the need of European borders. If we had earlier  recognized the legitimacy of physically guarding European borders, Hungary and Croatia and other countries would not have had to care for themselves and populist noises about closing the Dutch border would not have as much power as they have now. The rhetoric of war might have sounded less shrill than it does now. Anyway, I prefer the rhetoric of defence to the rhetoric of war.

I am convinced that as yet we need to firmly harness the European border surveillance. If this is performed well, the now raised internal barriers are likely to be broken down again, although before that happens a lot of time will be involved in regaining confidence.

Indeed, Dutch border control seems to be absurd to me. But I think European border surveillance is a good idea, because Europe is my country. After all, throughout Europe we love coffee houses, cafes, concerts and football matches. As to me, in that order.

Also see Alcohol and Borders

dinsdag 17 november 2015

Information is always good


Few things are as hard as to get insight into processes that take place stealthily. One way to somehow establish that insight is by having good information. Whether it comes to climate change, increasing or decreasing crimerates, or a social-economic split in society.

Or, to developments in Israeli policy regarding the West Bank. The gradual movement in that case is expressed in the terms that have been used in the course of twenty-five years to designate that area. Those designations have evolved from ‘occupied territories’ (around 1990), through ‘territories’, to (now), ‘Israeli regions’.

This – indeed stealthily unfolding – process can easily cause a feeling of impotence. The best weapon against it, also in this case, is detailed, precise (and of course correct) information that restitutes the possibility to choose. Allowing you, for example by whether or not buying certain products, to no longer stand completely powerless on the sidelines.

I therefore welcome the labeling of West Bank products. Not in order to boycott Israel but – on the contrary - the settlements. Because they are no Israel, right?

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line

vrijdag 13 november 2015

Borders


For me the most appealing passage of the article The  Exodus and  our Conscience by Paul Scheffer was this one, about Germany, and actually about the whole of Europe: “Why would a highly developed country, which eavesdrops its citizens day and night, no longer be able to guard its boundaries? Open borders, that’s something you may opt for, but if you don’t want to monitor national or European borders any longer, please don’t put this political unwillingness in the guise of police impotence”. Especially when the huge social experiment of integration of perhaps a million refugees is answered with “We make it”.

The passage even had some extra weight because a few days earlier Angela Merkel had visited Erdogan to ask him to better control his borders and to let pass fewer refugees through to the West. In exchange for money and other things.

That did not feel good. Erdogan was just trying, through some of his dirtiest tricks, to manipulate the elections and to bomb the Kurds, and precisely then Merkel will come and beg for his help. Actually I’m not against Realpolitik, and sooner or later you will have to deal with dictators. But you do not have to do so too early, and certainly not because of the strange consideration that self-guarding your borders would be indecent or Europe unworthy. Indeed, with her visit Merkel jeopardized European dignity.

Apparently the concept of dignity no longer suffices. In terms of dignity everything scores badly: it is unworthy to possibly accept Assad as a negotiating partner, and it is unworthy of refugees to let them be dunked in the heat, the rain and the cold of Central Europe. But it is also unworthy to beg Erdogan, who is just doing his dirtiest tricks, to stop the stream. Perhaps the only worthy thing is to let everybody in, but that’s impossible.

In this swamp where Europe lets its policy be defined by everyone and everything from outside, the sheer possibility of dignity threatens to evaporate. At such a moment you have only your own worthiness to hold on to, so that’s what Europe will have to do. If Europe wants to save its own dignity than for a while it must let itself be goverend less by external impulses then is the case now. Whether that be refugees or Erdogan or Putin.

And if there are borders required – I mean very physical barriers such as pontoons on the Aegean Sea or fences on the land – so be it. That’s not too unworthy, is it? Our entire physical and perhaps spiritual existence depends on borders.

Or, as Scheffer puts it in another powerful passage: “If people with liberal attitudes do not want to think about borders, then eventually people with an authoritarian slant draw boundaries. That is at stake and therefore a morality that takes its own crisis of conscience as a starting point, is not a sustainable morality.”



woensdag 4 november 2015

Wittgenstein as Talmudist


It is not obvious to bring Wittgenstein in connection with Talmudic thinking. He himself would probably have been the first to object because he did not like to be reminded of his Jewish ancestry. And also because in Wittgenstein’s own eyes clear thinking was his trademark while Talmudic reasoning, especially in his time, passed for obscure and incomprehensible. He wanted to have nothing to do with it.

But there is more to say about Wittgenstein. His initial striving for pure, linear logic and unequivocal truth at some point gave way to the belief that multiple contextual logics could coexist in plurality. ‘The’ truth was no longer his goal, rather clarity in the practical use of words and language. This change in Wittgenstein’s thinking is the cause of a fairly common distinction made between an early and a later Wittgenstein.

The said change of direction in his philosophy does not please everyone and some are even inclined to describe Wittgenstein’s late philosophy as obscure and incomprehensible. For example, Bertrand Russell – a big fan of the early Wittgenstein – believed the later Wittgenstein simply gave up the philosophical quest for true knowledge and thus betrayed  the duty of a philosopher. According to Ernest Gellner, the late Wittgenstein leads to relativism or conservatism.

Others, such as John Austin and Gilbert Ryle, enthusiastically follow in Wittgenstein’s footsteps. In the Netherlands, Bert Keizer praises him for the revolutionary break with Plato that Wittgenstein performs.

I belong to the second group. Although I have some reservations when it comes to a possible conservative effect of Wittgenstein’s work, on the whole I find it refreshing and relaxing. The remarkable thing is that my appreciation relates to a number of elements which I also find and appreciate in the style of the Talmud. Therefore for me Wittgenstein’s thinking is closer to Talmudic thought than is recognized in general, and than he himself would have liked.

What do I have in mind when I say that? What are those possibly parallel elements? I think of two things: a pragmatic interest in finding passable paths and  his abandon of the notion of ‘the’ truth.

For the later Wittgenstein the criterion for determining the ‘correct view’ is whether we have something to go on with again. He wonders what it takes to achieve that, and how to act according to what the situation asks from us. So, Wittgenstein quite deliberately does not invoke universal truth as a criterion for action, his criterion is pragmatic in nature.

Do not ask what a thing is, so is his motto, but look how we speak about them and act with them. In doing so he arrives at contextual meanings of language, the meaning of a word is its use. “To know how to go on” is what it’s all about. What is right depends on the game you are playing.

Take for example the public debate about smoking. Thinkers in the line of the later Wittgenstein don’t care much about the scientific truth in this area, ie about the question whether there is conclusive evidence that smoking produces health damage, and if so how exactly.

What these thinkers dó wonder about is what is socially accepted as a fact, on the basis of which we actually (can) act. Such as: that we have seen enough to assume a link between smoking and lung cancer, and are inclined to put some responsibility on tobacco manufacturers. And that in the course of time other accents can be laid. Thus the conversation about smoking becomes more of a practical-normative question than a truth issue.

In the Talmud discussions can proceed in the same way. Also for Talmudic statements a central criterion is the question of whether a passable path emerges. Not for nothing the word ‘halacha’ (the whole of rabbinic regulations) is derived from the verb ‘to go’. And if a collectively passable path is at stake, then a set of guiding rules and etiquette may be more convenient than the availability of a solid truth.

An example of Talmudic reasoning is the treatment of the question whether a given furnace is kosher or not. Rabbi Eliezer, for his answer to that question, relies on divine truth, and emphasizing that, he manages to move God to all kinds of supernatural signs: “If I’m right”,  Rabbi Eliezer says, “this tree will now be uprooted and that river will flow in the opposite direction”, and indeed they do. But the other rabbis in the meeting appear not to be impressed by that truth. “We pay no attention to a heavenly voice, for long ago You, Eternal One, at Mount Sinai have written in the Torah: Follow the majority”. So, just decide democratically, without divine intervention.

It is remarkable that such a way of reasoning, both in the case of the Talmud and in the case of the Philosophical Investigations (from the later Wittgenstein) has an effect on the style in which the books have been written. Both have a capricious character in which reasonings take place through associations rather than through a strictly logical, linear structure. Furthermore, both works pay a lot of attention to individual, specific situations and cases. In Wittgenstein this is a deliberately chosen style: he speaks judgmental about the ‘contempt for the individual case’ and he fights the human tendency to generalize. “I'll teach you differences”, Wittgenstein says, an endeavor that can be also attributed to the Talmud.

An indelible difference is that in the Talmud the possibility of reduction of sentences to a Biblical verse is required. It presses the associative way of thinking of the rabbis to great heights, but the extent of associated squirming and wriggling would undoubtedly greatly go against the grain with Wittgenstein.

Remains that both Wittgenstein and the Talmud with their organizing work aim at clarifying lived human practices. Who knows, if Wittgenstein had not been bothered by time-bound prejudices against the Talmud, he would perhaps have recognized the parallels.

Also see The portable homeland and I-lit

donderdag 29 oktober 2015

I-lit


Recently Naema Tahir called Die Welt von Gestern by Stefan Zweig one of the finest books she had read. For me actually the same holds true. It is 35 years since I read it, but its instructiveness and penetrating enjoyment are still standing sharp in my mind.

However, I completely disagree with the thoughts that she then connects to her appreciation of the book. She believes that Zweig reached that grand effect because he stays on the outside: he observes his surroundings and styles his findings in a masterly way. He does not speak about himself and this controlled distance creates depth and art.

She opposes that to the tendency of modern literature to expand extensively on the inner life of the author himself or herself, including physical and sexual aspects of private life. She calls that ‘I-lit’, with Karl Ove Knausgård and Jonathan Littell as its contemporary exponents, and she abhors it. Firstly because she finds the many sexual details repulsive. But in the second place, as she says, because someone else’s inner life is not relevant to a reader. And, as I suspect based on the tone of the piece, in the third place because of the old moralistic reason that attention to one’s own inner life is selfish.

Tahirs first argument is imaginable for me: I think too it’s often not really pleasant to, for example, get served the details of other people’s sex lives. But with her second argument, namely that it would not be relevant, I do not agree. For that reason, I also heartily disagree with her normative, condemning rejection of I-centredness.

I’m afraid that Tahirs considerations are derived a bit too much from the world of yesterday where she let herself be carried away by Zweig. That world of external control, elegant but compelling objectivity, distance and styling is completely outdated, so is my conviction. It relies too heavily on elements that are irretrievably gone, such as order thinking and the assumption of a cosmic harmony that we can bring near through control and, if necessary, by use of a little violence. In short, on an essentially Platonic conception of the world.

This underlying worldview over the past century lost its credibility. For the West, from a societal perspective, to this day the now eighty-year-old corruption of our political order by Nazism and Stalinism revealed a grim turning point. According to many experts the desire for objective order and control, deeply rooted in Western thinking, made possible those totalitarian regimes.

At the same time psychoanalysis and other humanities have increased our understanding of ourselves and our often murky motives so overwhelmingly, that Zweig’s polished gentleman existence has become unattainable for us for good. Indeed, we not even consider it to be desirable because of its unrealistic character. There is for us no choice but to descend into our troubled lives, so our literature does so as well.

And yes, that can bring up all sorts of revelations that Tahir abhors such as the conclusion  by a recent biographer that Zweig which was an exhibitionist. “I do not want to hear that”,  she exclaims, “It's a kind of defilement.” It obscures beauty and it is irrelevant.

I would say on the contrary: the very fact that Tahir’s lofty image can be brought down by the disclosure makes the disclosure relevant. Frankly, I think the focus on the inner life in all its aspects, not just the sublime, is progress. Not that I’m going to read Knausgård, but I appreciate the tendency that modern people try as best as possible to deal with their not so lofty but every-day physical, sexual and spiritual needs. And I tend to see recognition of the dark diversity of human strivings as a gain. Eventually it is a better means of averting social chaos than the controlling action of an outward ideal of civilization.

After all, how else do we ever get out of that often sterile, objectifying, communicatively poor atmosphere at our offices, schools and universities, than by systematically scrutinizing ourselves and expressing ourselves as subjects? To dismiss that as self-centered I would call old-fashionedly normative. I would like to cite Wittgenstein in this regard, in conversation with Friedrich Waismann: “At the end of my lecture on ethics I spoke in the first person: I think that this is something very essential. Here there is nothing to be stated any more; all I can do is to step forth as an individual and speak in the first person.”

La Belle Epoque is definitely in the past. But that loss can be very livable, and indeed the more so as our inner life is more involved. That much faith in a certain order I still have.

Also see Escape

donderdag 22 oktober 2015

Levinas and calculation


There is a lot of emotion in the air in recent weeks. It is all about compassion, fear, disgust, enthusiasm, all triggered by the influx of refugees. The commotion is accompanied by sensible commentaries calling for restraint of the emotions using our reason.

Such as that of Nelleke Noordervliet: “The emotion reigns. The ratio has a tough job to tame that monster. Essentially the sick tweets about drowned refugees do not differ much from a consignment of cuddly toys.”

And Kim Putters, director of the Dutch Social Cultural Planning Department, believes that, “whether  you want to close the borders or to show abundant mercy”, we may need to develop new democratic methods to deal with these problems.

My reaction to such statements is: let the different emotions struggle, also within each individual. The outcome of that fight will probably yield many intermediate positions, which can be stepping stones to more reasoned outcomes.

Meanwhile, we should not pretend that there is nothing to choose or that choices are not made. The Red Cross suggests that in its advertisements in newspapers and on the radio, with the slogan “Don’t let us choose”, ie between refugees to be helped.

I think that’s a seriously misleading slogan, because of course choices are constantly being made. Politicians, like Merkel and Orban, do so on a daily basis by opening and closing boundaries a little more or less. UNHCR selects refugees in the region for resettlement in Europe, and thereby uses ‘objective criteria’, not the ‘subjective desire’ of the refugee. And chance selects because some people are precisely at the right time in the right place while others are not. I would not know how this could be avoided. Not everyone can come here, that is precisely the tragedy behind the whole thing.

The Red Cross’s utopia assumes the same malleability as the journalist Ron Frese who recently with a penetrating look asked our prime minister “Mr. Rutte, you are surely in control?”. This malleability is far removed from the necessarily always utilitarian colored political acting. Decisive in that arena is what is feasible for the greatest number of people, citizens and migrants, and then always a certain degree of collateral damage is acceptable. It is a form of calculation.

Shouldn’t something like that offend my favorite philosopher Levinas, and therewith myself, squarely? Indeed, isn’t this at odds with the attention that Levinas calls for the other person?
Yes, it definitely is. Especially when you explain Levinas in such a way that you have always to stand ready for everybody everywhere. Actually this is not my standpoint, but yet a complication in his philosophy remains that the Other whom I meet may compete with  another Other, even several Others. To them, I also have the absolute obligations which Levinas is talking about, but because of that the various obligations get relativized to some extent.

Levinas recognizes this socio-political complication, and does not run away from it. But in fact he offers no new perspective and at this point simply joins the Western political-philosophical tradition. Which already for centuries is engaged in reflection on balancing all  competing obligations that people have towards each other. Levinas embraces with enthusiasm the political and legal institutions of our society where that weighing of interests  occurs. He considers their existence of very great importance.

As Levinas’s added value may indeed be considered that he shows that this somewhat bleak socio-political weighing of interests is never just right. Due to the balancing and the corresponding calculation, the original moral obligation will always be betrayed to a certain extent. However blessed the work of our legislators, judges and academics, the institutions in which they work at times exhibit a complacency that in the eyes of Levinas is by definition misplaced. And the stability and quality of their products have a high illusionary content, measured by whether perhaps too much violence is done to the original moral obligation. Levinas never tires to ask attention for that.

Also see How naïve is Levinas really? and Totalitarianism is with us

zondag 4 oktober 2015

Humiliation is never good


Last week I thought: this goes all wrong. I do not mean that we - the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France – accept too many refugees, because I do not know. Maybe we can handle it.

Nor do not mean that other countries - Hungary, Czech Republic, Israel - wrongly hold off the boat, because they may have their reasons.

I refer specifically to the reproaches made by the rich and developed West within the EU to the poorer and less developed East. Thus it is said that Hungary is “antisocial” and “inhumane”, and that the Eastern European countries in their opposition to mandatory quotas don’t represent “21st century Europe”.

Aren’t here the most deadly ingredients that can play in the interaction between people and states fully active again? The moral and cultural superiority of the West and the ‘primitiveness’ of the unruly countries are recurring themes. And therewith humiliation is the order of the day.

This is so bad because with a bit more historical look at our own cultural and social developments it may become well understandable that the East European countries do what they do. Don’t we ourselves wrestle with the integration of newcomers, while working on that already for fifty years. A couple of years ago Chancellor Merkel still considered integration to have “failed”. I did not agree with her, I think it goes well in many areas, but let’s not forget  that we needed fifty years for it. That experience Eastern European countries do not have. And Israel certainly not, because for such a development peace is a prerequisite for, including with Syria.

Furthermore, the seventy-year post-war peace and prosperity helped the indigenous Western European population to for the first time in world history think in completely different ways about faith, tradition, sexuality and identity. Remember the many shocks accompanied the process, at least in Holland, from the rebellion of the first prosperity-generation of in the sixties, through massive secularization, the revolt of Fortuyn and Wilders to the current debate about Blackface.

A suchlike cultural and social development apparently can only start to develop after a period of 20 to 25 years of peace and stability, the point where Eastern Europe is only now. Moreover, Hungary and Romania have had bad experiences with the difficult embeddable Roma. How ethical – or simply: wise – is it to demand of others something after twenty-five years that took us seventy years te reach?

Europe will have to deal with its member states in the way in which a state deals with its subjects. No state will oblige citizens to just take refugees into their homes. Those who can and want to do so may be encouraged. But those who are not ready to do so for whatever reasons – trouble in organizing their own life, trauma, poverty – can not be forced. And certainly not with an appeal to 21st century moral standards which originate in Western peace and prosperity and are suddenly thought to be universal.

The latter pretension can only have a humiliating effect. And does the pedantic West still not know what that means?

Also see Reluctance against the West, Half-grown and Plato disproved?

donderdag 24 september 2015

Basic Income


At the time – thirty years ago – I would have been helped with a Basic Income, I think. In fact, I was quite desperate then about my ability to earn a living. And then people could say: it’s all not about what you have or what you earn but about what you are. But that sounds sincere only if the funds are delivered with it. And that’s exactly what a basic income does.

So if I call myself a supporter of the introduction of a basic income, I have my own motives.  They don’t, for example, include, as is the case with other supporters, the pursuit of greater equality. I think that’s definitely worth pursuing, but the introduction of a basic income would not help achieving that goal. Because the one person would regard his basic income as no more than a small beginning, and he would, working hard or not, strive to add a substantial supplement. The other would be satisfied with it and devote his time to art or lounging or gardening. On balance, you keep big differences this way.

Neither, in my view, the basic income would be an answer to the take-over by robots, ie the displacement of human labor by robots and computers, as announced by some authors. Because other experts in their turn believe that we are going to have laborshortage on a large scale in the West, an argument that is currently playing a role in the mass admission of migrants.

Indeed, as to me it would be about the possibility to save a inner self that is not fully exploitable. That one does not have, as the liturgy of the Jewish High Holidays says so beautifully, “to sell your soul for bread”. You could make the choice of the poet Mustafa Stitou: “Most of all I would like to read, think, write all day about what it is ... I almost wanted to say: to be human ... but I mean: to be thís man”.

In an interview Stitou tells about the tricks he has to perform to maintain that space for himself. That he does not have a family to support and anyway has few needs, but that yet he time and again has to account for his choice. Perhaps a basic income is exactly that: a break with the economistic thinking which lies behind this accountability pressure.

Also see The dominant economy

donderdag 17 september 2015

Levinas as I (can) understand him


Chancellor Merkel must be careful not to run too far ahead of the troops. But for the rest it is quite nice to see so many people come to the rescue. Volunteers distribute bread to refugees at border crossings, doctors and translators welcome refugees in German refugee centers, municipalities improvise extra care.

That’s nice to see, as long as it does not get simplistically ideological in the sense of: let everyone come here so that finally there is global justice. I’m sorry, but I do not believe in that. But I don’t think it is like that, I think most people help because they can not bear the misery of the refugees, and that seems to me a good motivation.

Like the motivation of the former Dutch parliamentarian Jacques de Milliano, who in an interview recently told that he became a physician because he is moved by the concrete suffering of individuals: “The essence of being physician is to truly make a difference for that one person. On the battlefield or in the office, it does not matter”.

De Milliano did not stop there. He wanted to do well on a larger scale, and together with others he established Doctors Without Borders Netherlands and therewith did many good things in a more structured manner. However, gradually something simplistically ideological crept in, in the sense that at one point he took as his task: to be always ready for anyone in the world. There in my eyes ideology starts to become uncomfortable and megalomaniacal.

Fortunately, in the eyes of De Milliano too. The doctor without borders must then learn to draw his own boundaries. He became a general practitioner in Haarlem. “The general practice was a reset. I had to catch my breath, get my head to be in one place.”

For the philosopher Paul van Tongeren, in a conversation with ethics professor Ingrid Robeyns, the current refugee crisis raises the problem: why is it that I do nothing, while I feel I should. Because that would be “morally the right thing to do”. Robeyns believes it’s because you need others for that. As long as people around you do nothing, it all has to come from yourself and that is too much to ask.

Actually, I think the latter is not quite the case, for there are various groups of volunteers. One could easily join them. But one way or another, Paul van Tongeren does manage to do so. He once more states that action for refugees would be the only correct thing to do and then concludes: “My problem is that I don’t do it.”

I would say Van Tongeren’s problem is rather that he speaks of ‘the ultimate morally right answer’, as if there is only one moral position possible. That seems to me to be his real problem. For matters are not so clear and unequivocal, as also may appear from the story of De Milliano. Van Tongeren’s statement departs from the idea that one’s responsibility is infinite: it relates to every other human being, always, wherever on earth.

I find that questionable. I maintain that keeping up a decent democratic and tolerant society like ours just as good embodies an important value. And that for that we badly need to people who have their heads in one place.

What the hell, I hear people think, how do I reconcile that with my favorite philosopher Levinas? Indeed, the one of ‘the infinite responsibility’?

Admittedly, the latter characterization is true, according to the interpretation by which Levinas has become popular in the Netherlands and which is actually nothing more than a continuation of Christian beliefs with Jewish means. Including an infinite guilt. And, to be honest, the late Levinas himself gives ample reason for this interpretation, through concepts such as ‘vicarious suffering’ and ‘unconditional responsibility for every other’.

But that’s not my Levinas. Because my Levinas is the one of his earlier books, including Totality and Infinity. These indeed dó speak about the Other and responsibility and infinity. But these words then don’t have the color yet of the later universally valid claims that fit in so well with Christian thought.

In Levinas’s early and middle period infinite responsibility must not be taken as valid always, everywhere and in respect of everybody. But rather in the sense in which the philosopher Derrida later expresses one of his key points: as the occurrence of the extraordinary (infinite) in the ordinary (finite). And it does not have to last forever and not to concern everyone. It can refer to a split second, in interaction with just one other person. Thereafter, the finite takes over again, until a new strike of infinity hits you, and so on and so on. Thát Levinas appeals to me. And I think to De Milliano too.

In rejecting the later Levinas, I am not alone. Many right-minded people reject his position as being impossibly radical and demanding, so for the same reasons why Christianity for many people turned out to be untenable. Besides, the Netherlands Refugee Council also does not recommend radical solutions, and does not encourage people to take a refugee in the house.

But strangely enough attention to the much less radical, but more viable Levinas from the early and middle period is scarce. It is partly due to the Leuven philosopher Rudi Visker that we have good understanding of this valuable variant of Levinas.

Also see Levinas and Empathy and Compassion or Competition

woensdag 9 september 2015

Compassion or Competition


Last week the frontpage of my newspaper presented an article by Marli Huijer under the title: “Try to imagine: you fight for air in a refrigerator”.  With me this headline generated the following thought: before I let all kinds of suggestions from others in response to the refugee crisis foist upon me, I want to elucidate for myself this kind of admonitions and exhortations.

In Huijer’s article I come across the following exhortations, whether or not interconnected: feel the proximity of the refugees; remember that you could have been one of them yourself, make yourself an idea of the situation; identify with the refugees. Below I try to unravel for myself what I think of each of those admonitions.

1.Feel the proximity. “That refrigerator-truck could as well have stood close to us around the corner on the highway. Austria, that’s European soil. Such proximity makes we are even more addressed in our responsibility. Our commitment is increased. We realize: we could ourselves have been it.” This passage follows the observation by Huijer that already earlier we were shocked by reports about boats and other dramas that took place outside the European continent.

I do agree with Huijer that physical proximity of misery touches you stronger than when it is farther away. Note in this connection that such an observation also works the other way: the further away the sorrow, the less we feel accountable. So there is no absolute responsibility on our side for refugees, closeness counts.

Furthermore, if you’re talking about proximity as a factor that counts, then this immediately also implies cultural proximity. That kind of closeness will count as well. Which can, very consistently, again work both ways: we are not waiting for more imports of Islamic fundamentalism or anti-Semitism. But perhaps we dó sympathize with critical, emancipated Middle Eastern citizens who are fed up with the backwardness of their governments.

2. Consider that you could have been it yourself. “Nobody wants to imagine to choke as a refugee in a truck, but you just have to imagine ... We realize: we could have been there ourselves.”

In this motivation to imagine what refugees go through, a certain sense of reciprocity and enlightened self-interest resounds. Something like: we might also once find ourselves in such a pitiable situation. If we help them now, we may hope that we will also be helped then by others. By the way, there is nothing wrong with this argument.

3. Identify yourself with the refugees: “We are able to identify with other people. That we can have compassion for the other, proceeds therefrom; we are rather similar.”

I think that’s true. When you recognize yourself in someone else that máy evoke  compassion. But, as the philosopher René Girard keeps emphasizing tirelessly,  recognizing the other as yourself can also trigger competition and mimetic desire: I want the same things and safety as the other, or rather I want to avoid for myself the insecurity which I see another is experiencing. Properly functioning mirror neurons work both ways: it can lead to competition and fencing off of what the other person wants from you; and it can lead to compassion.

This observation is consistent with the two camps that Huijer sees arise in the Netherlands. One camp is driven by compassion and wants to help but does not know how. The other camp is afraid of being eclipsed by what is coming down upon us. “It is up to the politicians to deal with it”, Huijer says. That last thought I might find the most convincing, but also the least spectacular.

Huijer’s other thoughts leave me, after the above weighing, in a state of moral confusion, coupled with the unpleasant feeling of being addressed somewhat moralistically.

Fortunately European politics, with the joint initiatives of Germany, Britain and France over the past week, now get some movement. That is – apart from the grand scale spontaneous reception of refugees, whether or not driven by mirror neurons – is a good thing, I think.

Also see Where do universal values bring us? and Levinas and Empathy

woensdag 2 september 2015

Not that bad


It is time for Europe to wake up from its decades-long sweet sleep, says Caroline de Gruyter in her column. She believes that for decades an immense allergy to power politics is the foundation of the EU. Foreign policy, according to the leading politicians, is mostly about trade, human rights and humanitarian development, while America takes care of our military protection. We must, according to De Gruyter, learn to understand again what True, Big Politics is: land grabbing and treasure hunting.

Measured by the standards of De Gruyter Israel does not do that bad. As to land grabbing it takes part even quite literally, although De Gruyter will not encourage that. What does fit into her vision is the sharp Israeli awareness of geopolitical threats, such as IS or Iran. Obviously, because their hostility towards Israel is no secret. But one of the results is that Israel does not make one step without a thorough assessment of the power political consequences. And it will continuously try to influence these effects. Failing to do so the country simply can not afford.

Well, de Gruyter tells us, no civilization can afford it, not even Europe. Continued neglect of the great political power game might once seriously break up Europe.

In terms of character and disposition I do not feel right at home with the approach propagated by De Gruyter. I do like peaceful sanctuaries, where art and culture and thinking can flourish. But she undoubtedly has a point. Paradise reserves don’t remain in position just by itself, and when you are realistic you will see that scary power political formations such as Russia and IS come closer. Without power thinking Europe will never find an answer.

It’s just very hard not to end up on a slippery slope, as Israel in the occupied territories. Or would appropriating them be a power-political and military necessity?

Also see I don't understand

zondag 16 augustus 2015

Derailed ideology


What is worse? A Palestinian baby died in a fire bomb attack by Jewish settlers; or four stabbed participants in the Jerusalem gayparade, one of whom is already deceased and the others probably marked for their lives?

This is no kind of question, of course. For those directly involved this kind of suffering equation is not an issue.

And for us as spectators? Once more we find how dangerous ideologies can be. In both cases, it comes to political and religious ideas that run off with people. They turn them into criminals who in their ideological foolishness know no boundaries any longer.

That finding may encourage us to watch more critically the process of our thinking and to ask ourselves where we get unacceptably ideological. After all, precisely well-intentioned ideas – and at this moment I still want to consider most religious or political ideas as such – can get monstrously ideological.

Apart from that I think throwing the fire bomb is the most evil of the two crimes. Because this settlers action takes place within the framework of ideological infatuation which is not limited any longer to individuals. The desire – whether or not religiously motivated – to appropriate as much Palestinian land as possible is the ideological madness of an entire Israeli cabinet. With government-sanctioned lawlessness and outlawry of the Palestinians as a result. That is really very serious.

I hope this time the bombthrowers wil be identified and brought to court.

Also see Polyphony

zondag 9 augustus 2015

Self-reflection by the other


If you had to nominate a profound value that has been produced and cherished by Western civilization, would that not be the capacity for self-reflection?

This proposition is sometimes suggested during the workshop Thinking for someone else, and I think it is true. The Greek motto ‘Know thyself’, combined with the relentless search for truth by Socrates, has triggered a millennia long tradition of critical research. This has not only produced science and critical philosophy, but as its most praiseworthy result – in this view – also a tradition of self-scrutiny.

For examples of the latter, one can think of the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Essays of Montaigne or the Confessions of Rousseau. Typical of this tradition of self-scrutiny is that the self appears twice. The self is doing the action of the investigation, and thus appears as actor. But the self is also the object of the research performed by itself. Quite an achievement indeed.

Undeniably this capacity for self-reflection is something to be proud of. But is it the best thing a man or a culture can achieve? Will you, as a culture, manage in the end, working with the ability to self-reflect as your highest value? The proposition does not pretend that, but I add the question because I think it is an important question to which the answer is no. And because our culture is troubled by that negative answer.

That trouble, in my opinion, consists in the circumstance that, through the emphasis on the self in a double sense, the horizon of thought will also coincide with the horizon of self. The universe of the self-critical self is that of the self. Self-reflection remains reflection of the self on the self. Autonomy is the norm, the self remains its own initiator and author. Many beautiful things can spring therefrom, but the repetition of all those words ‘self’ also emphasizes the solipsistic character of autonomy thinking. How restrictive that is, is shown if you put another – self-invented – word next to it: other-reflection.

By which I mean: reflection – on yourself – that is not triggered by yourself but by someone else. Because, whatever you come up with in your attempts at self-criticism or whatever discipline you display in that, the world turns out to be just thát bit greater than you could imagine, and the other precisely different from what you could imagine. There are other universes indeed, which I can not get at by myself. There self-reflection – triggered by the self – stops, and other-reflection – triggered by something surprising from the other – starts.

This is difficult for Socrates and his followers. They indeed keep asking questions, but they mostly invent them themselves.

Also see Immune and Levinas and Rousseau

vrijdag 31 juli 2015

Levinas and Camus


In the decades after the Second World War Emmanuel Levinas and Albert Camus were active participants in Parisian intellectual life. I have not heard of encounters between them but, apparently independent from one another, they treat themes that were prevalent at that time in Paris, like that of the hostile, silent cosmos and the solitary place of humans in it. These subjects which they have in common testify of their being part of the same intellectual milieu.

A similarity between the two thinkers is that they, each in his own way, in their best works assume that ‘meaningful order’ in this world is not taken for granted.

For Levinas – in Totality and Infinity – this notion is alive in his description of an elusive but constant alternation of two principles: that of self-centeredness and the breaking thereof by the Other. The Other keeps constantly surprising you, precisely because once and again after each break you, fully legitimately, return to your ego-zone. Structures of the ego – and by extension of the state and institutions – are important, but the other can – in His completely unpredictable  way – disturb them and claim the (temporary) primate.

This realization that our own finite life in the light of indifferent eternity means nothing, was in the very same Parisian environment already articulated by Sartre. He believed that we can only tolerate that awareness as ‘disgust’ (la nausée). Camus elaborates the theme in several books, and his main conclusion is that it is important for people to bear this absurdity, in a as human as possible way.

Indeed, Camus himself did the bearing. Till the end he has refused to take easy positions, such as regarding the Algerian war for independence or towards communism. For that, he was too much aware of the precariousness of many viewpoints. Very different, for example, from Sartre who at some point shied away from the lonely-making aspects of his own existentialist thinking and preferred the full, but often oversimplified commitment of communism.

Unlike Camus, and more like Sartre – but in his own unique way – Levinas ultimately succumbed to the temptation of a less absurd and elusive universe. In his book Otherwise  than Being he takes leave from the fragile anarchistic balance of Totality and Infinity, and he chooses to attribute a unequivocal depth structure to the life of every human being. We are “deeply” and “before everything” dedicated to and to the disposal of the Other, Levinas says in that book.

I regret this development in Levinas. Firstly, because I cannot sympathize with the total commitment to the other, indeed: to every other. That doesn’t tally with my experiences. Secondly, because the anarchist balancing of Totality and Infinity seems to me more realistic, mostly because of the message that we must endure that uncertainty. Pity that Levinas in his later work succumbed to the lure of more grounded theory.

That has not happened to Camus. Perhaps because died at much younger age?

Also see Professional Philosophy's sad Course: Nussbaum and Levinas

maandag 27 juli 2015

Bankers sincerely don’t understand


I must explain that title. I mean that bankers are not necessarily malevolent as they once more bring mathematically smart but risky financial products on the market or use perverse reward systems.

I say that because people (bankers, in this case) will not be willing to talk about their actions when they are accused of malice. But also because alarmingly often this is the case: bankers believe in what they do. They don’t necessarily have bad intentions.

Merel van Vroonhoven, head of the Dutch Regulator Financial Markets, expresses this as follows: “Bankers feel that they have done what has been agreed, so that’s it. They are, unlike the surrounding society in which they operate, insufficiently aware that there is really need for something else. Therefore, the surprise in the sector about the commotion from society is sincere.”

And Joris Luyendijk, in his book Swimming with Sharks, says: “Outsiders see that the amoral financial system leads to immoral outcome, but bankers have learned in their economic studies, especially if that was at an Anglo-Saxon top university, that the result of their work is morally right because it contributes to economic growth. That is their dogma.” That’s what they believe in and much more they sincerely do not see.
In addition, says Luyendijk, that universe is not so exceptional. Rather, the amoral mindset where everybody is so angry about now, has found broad access in society, even in sectors such as education and healthcare. So the problem is the system, in the broadest sense, and instead of furiously blaming individual bankers for succumbing to perverse incentives we should invest our energy into tackling and eliminating them.

The wide spread of Anglo-Saxon management values – such as rational cleverness, priority for thinking over doing and for policy over implementation – allows the comparison of bankers with other professions that sometimes operate in a similar dysfunctional way. Certainly for the illustration of the influence of good intentions such a comparison is instructive, because in those other professions money does not play as big a role. So the accusation of avarice and greed (often directed against bankers) is not needed for an understanding of the type of dysfunctional behavior we talk about. Good intentions and ambitious cunning explain enough.

You can see that for example in the US policy officials who had to carry Obamacare through parliament. Obama’s team consisted of super smart people. But they appeared to have little interest in the concrete implementation and elaboration of the plan. They had terminated the insurance of millions of Americans without telling them they quickly would get a new - and better - insurance.

Obama’s project then was in danger of running ashore. With understated anger the president subjected his team to a questionsession which the participants experienced as “an autopsy and as much worse than shouting”. By doing so, Obama as yet made his policymakers aware of the panic and commotion they had caused to people and which they, with all their cunning, had not seen coming. As bankers do not understand the turmoil that may cause their products in society.

The comparison shows that these policy-makers and bankers have the following in common: a great belief in complicated products, thought-out by high potentials and rolled out downward; a certain blindness to the effects of those products in the daily lives of people; the belief that their products serve a higher purpose.

Anyway, well intentioned or not, if the results of their actions are undesirable, then bankers must be addressed on the risks of their actions, as Obama did with his policy officials.

In order to protect society from this kind of smug smart guys. And also because maybe it is not so nice at all for bankers and policy officials themselves, having to live in the above described value system. Luyendijk: “That’s why I say we should hug them. Because they lead tragic lives.”

Also see Crisis of Ethics or of Thinking?

zondag 19 juli 2015

Is the world sound?


In newspaper interviews with several refugees recently the Iranian Pouya Zarchin was cited. He fled in 2011 from Iran to the Netherlands with a fake Spanish passport and tells how scared he was. “If I would get caught and returned to Iran, prison sentence would await me. Or worse. Dutch people can not understand that fear.”

Another, but related story was Wanda Reisel’s, referring to the persecution her family suffered during the Second World War. Because of the impact of that familyhistory she sees herself leading a double life. “My fantasy life is as important as, perhaps even more important than real life. In my head, everything is in order and secure, but the outside world is threatening and unreliable: before you know it you’ll be betrayed, arrested and put on transport. Because you show who you are”.

What resounds in both quotations is a conception of the world as something threatening, chaotic, unreliable. At best, its frightening character is to overcome by building a strong inner life over against it. Anyway, the mood of the quotes does not know of an objectively existing, sound ordering of the world, in which we would participate.

Then, indeed, the feeling about life recently expressed by the philosopher Ger Groot is entirely different. For him, there is order, deep down everything is all right. “Despite appearances to the contrary, right in our hearts we are convinced that the world is in order, that our existence is harmonious, that happiness is the raw material of reality.”

Groot is not unique in this way of experiencing the world. On the contrary, therewith he is an exponent of what rightly could be called the ‘Western order-thinking’. At its largest that order thinking is expressed in the Christian worldview. Its clue is the idea that, no matter how perverted our earth may get, the world has in fact already been redeemed and the results of such redemption are at our disposal in the form of sacraments and other objectified salvation.

In fact, the latter is wasted on Ger Groot, because he is an atheist. But the underlying mood, indeed, is his: fundamentally, there is order in the world, the world is just right. And for holding that view one does not necessarily have to be Christian, as is evident from the world view of even the most skeptical stream of Greek thought, the Stoa. The Stoa’s philosophy is based on the idea that everything in nature happens in a necessary manner. There is nothing to stop it, but with the help of reason you can give everything a place and defuse negative emotions. By joining the prevailing order, you will still be happy.

If it is true that both movements, Christianity and the Stoa, go back to Greek thought, it indicates how much the idea of a sound world is a Greek idea. One of the most powerful recent expressions of this order thinking – with once again an appeal on Greece – comes from Heidegger. He bases on it, with all his pessimism about the technocratic direction of Western civilization, a deep faith and an intense joy. But he always kept it half hidden, which was reason for Cornelis Verhoeven to refer once to Heidegger as ‘that cheat’.

How different from that sounds for example the Israeli writer David Grossman, in a recent interview with Ikon-House. “We Jews are looking for a different way of being in this world. Without being defined by fear and by wars, without enemy. To rely upon our Being. One of the simplest definitions of ‘Jew’ through the centuries is: someone who, collectively or individually, never felt at home in the world.”

You could explain the latter mood because Jews for centuries have been living in the diaspora, in constant dependence on the whims of others. So from a kind of accumulated post-traumatic stress disorder.

But it could also be that doubt about a just world order was much earlier articulated in Jewish culture. That would, already centuries before the beginning of the era, have found its way into biblical writings, like the Book of Job.

Whatever explanation you choose, both developments may help us to understand a little better why in the course of history Jews for Christians and other ‘Greek’ thinkers posed a threat: they questioned the Greek and Christian base feeling of a ‘sound world’. From that confrontation you can get very chagrined.

Also see Plato disproved and Order

zaterdag 4 juli 2015

Greece and Democracy


It might well be: that Greece simply does not fit into the European Union.

Of course it belongs there because it is a European country and even the cradle of European civilization. And because we like the Greeks to share in our prosperity.

But it is a serious question whether all that is reason enough for membership of the EU. It could well be that minimal levels of polity, taxation and anti-corruption appear to be non-negotiable minimum requirements which must be met in any case. And Greece fails that test.

The reason that Ireland, Spain and Portugal have been more successful in finding their way out of the economic crisis probably lies in that they better meet those minimum requirements. Because these elements were present in their culture and mentality already for some time.

As long as these – indeed technocratic – conditions are not met, a democratic system can not function properly. At least, it can destroy more than you want. The democratic election of Tsipras and then the actions of his government might very well turn out to be a catastrophe.

In that case the functioning of the current Greek democracy (“one hundred thousand civil servants  extra!”) will confirm the dislike that almost all ancient Greek thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle, had for the democratic form of government. Which they accused of being too fickle, too prone to follow the issues of the day – with the risk that emotions prevail over well-thought out decision-making and that too little attention is given to the long term.

The great ancient Greek thinkers were not aware of the above conditions. They did not know that, when they are met, democracy is quite possible and viable. I am afraid that today’s Greeks still do not know.

Also see Where do universal values bring us?

zondag 28 juni 2015

Corporate Ethical Officer


Following its blameworthy behaviour around a public tender, Dutch Railways has decided to appoint a Corporate Ethical Officer.

You would better not think of getting that job. The splitting off of ‘ethics’ may very well be designed to give the other managers a free hand again, because formally the ethical side will then be covered. Being manager of ethics you will be forced to slow down the other managers in their ambitions, while they, to their feeling, are engaged with the reál work. You will then be the, probably little respected, spoil-sport.

I conceive this measure as an illustration of our tendency in organized life to excessively divide what can actually not be divided. It is questionable whether ethics is separately available, because actually it must be present in everything. Ín the people, ín what you do with each other, and not as an isolated category.

Does this last conviction of mine mean that I end up with the so called ‘virtue ethics’? This is the ethics that incites people to anchor virtues – such as temperance, courage, justice – in their character. With them managers and other employees of the organization would no longer need an external monitoring body because they act virtuously from themselves.

Surely there is something to say for this virtue ethics, at least it is hard to be against it. But I’m not a big supporter, because there is a hint of arduousness around it. You need to constantly work on your character, train your whole life long. Again, one can hardly object to that, but as to me, I would like to have it a little more relaxed.

Besides, how do you measure virtues without immediately entering into the false categories of which the ‘manager ethics’ is also an exponent? If you want to call in virtues in an operational way, the risk is considerable that once again you reduce moral qualities to defined characteristics and places them outside yourself.

It is funnier, and more relaxed, to just stumble upon good relationships, to find them in reality. The problem is, if that good is not to be a pre-defined, fixed category, then it must continually emerge in the situations and configurations that happen, in the relationships that occur. So, less in people and things, but between what happens. There is something surprising and unplannable to that.

But it shoúld be that way, because sharp demarcation of categories often does not convince us any longer. Think only of the ‘manager ethics’.

Also see Defining the world

maandag 22 juni 2015

Plato disproved?


“About a perfect world we know nothing. Plato, who still believed in it, has been disproved already long ago”, Rob Schouten wrote recently. Schouten sees the shedding of Plato as a stage of maturity, and I agree with him. But I do have my doubts about the taken-for-grantedness and carelessness with which he posits this refutation as a fait accompli.

In the Jewish tradition, Plato actually is not present in a disturbing way, but probably there he never was. Judaism has good testimonials when it comes to a non-Platonic, more realistic view of good and evil in this world, without however losing hope of a messianic time. The realization that earthly life must be lived fully, and is not inferior compared to our spiritual existence, is from the outset deeply rooted in Judaism.

But other institutions that once were strongholds of Platonic thought, are still so as much today as ever, in my view. I think of such diverse entities as the Catholic church, the world of management and organization, and philosophical practice.

In the church the superiority of the spiritual over the physical was from the start so strong that the image of human perfection for the church was inextricably linked to sexual abstinence. For both men and women this meant that the state of virginity was superior to marriage. Of course marriage was not forbidden, because reproduction was important, but the Platonic hierarchy was clear. To my knowledge, this is, unlike Schouten suggests, still the official line of the Catholic Church.

In management and organization there has always been, from the time systematic thinking  about organizations developed, a strong emphasis on a separation between thoughts and actions, policies and practices, with priority control for thinkers and policy makers. For the founders of organization theory, such as Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol, this was taken as an obvious starting point for achieving the highest efficiency and effectiveness. In essence, this primacy of thinking over doing is a Platonic reflex. And though this principle is regularly challenged, it is very firmly anchored in our organized life.

Regarding philosophy, to the extent it is attracted to ‘ivory tower’ work, it is a Platonic affair. The things going on there are supposed to be ‘deeper’ and more ‘fundamental’ than in other scientific disciplines, and therefore to represent a truer reality. The corresponding ideas of philosophy as ‘a constant spiritual exercise, where thinking reflects without a preconceived goal on timeless questions’ or exclusive involvement in epistemology are still largely prevalent. There too, there are voices that call for less Platonic isolation and for thinking more about concrete matters. But those voices have certainly not won yet.

The refutation of Plato, therefore, has not be completed yet. As I said, I do think that Jewish tradition plays a leading role here, and already for centuries so. That does not always produce neat arrangements or systematic constructions, let alone a perfect world. But anyway, one is less affected by Plato’s life-hostile schemes there.

Also see Plato at the workplace

zaterdag 13 juni 2015

The portable homeland


The Estonians are worried. They feel vulnerable because their big neighbor Russia, who in the past regularly walked them underfoot, seems to be aggressive again. What is happening in Ukraine frightens the Estonians, and so does the language that Russia uses lately.

“Because of that lunatic in Moscow, we are working on a concept to be able to survive as a country, even if we would for a while have no own territory anymore”, Taavi Kotka, the Chief Information Officer of the Estonian government, was quoted in NRC. “We not only make a digital backup, but also a mirror, a version that is always on call.” The content includes all information from citizens, communicationsystems and government systems.

The Estonians are digitally well organized for some time already. After gaining independence in 1991, Estonia was ready to work with digitization. In a relatively poor and sparsely populated country that was simply the most effective way to reduce costs and to offer services that could not otherwise be delivered.

But what began as a cost-saving operation has now also generated other benefits. For instance the time saved by citizens because they can fill all government forms digitally and do not ever have to repeat their medical history. Furthermore it leads, through export of digital knowledge and products, to economic success. And now this advantage is added: the guarantee of national survival in a situation without your own territory.

What does this make me think of? Indeed, of the codification of Jewish tradition in the Bible, Mishnah and Talmud, containing rules and agreements concerning liturgy, but also on matters of legal and administrative nature. Those writings have given Jews in the Diaspora for centuries so much structure and consistency that, in the formulation of Heinrich Heine, they could be referred to as the ‘portable Jewish homeland’. They made sure that, however much the Jews were scattered across the globe, a shared Jewish identity could survive.

So, what the CIO of Estonia has in mind, has been tried once already, and it appears to be managable, to some extent. Especially when it would concern the situation in which “for a while” there would be no own territory. But how do you know it will not last two thousand years?

Except that it is doable, something else may be learned from the Jewish diaspora. Namely that the exile was never able to take away the deep desire for a tangible state on a tangible territory. That’s why I don’t begrudge any nation, however digitized or marginalized, a private, secure, analog territory.

Also see The many dimensions of Ari Shavit

vrijdag 5 juni 2015

Liberation from fundamentalism


On May 5th, Dutch Liberation Day, moralism is never far away: do we actually realize how big is the privilege to be free? Remembering the misery of war and occupation must help us to strengthen our sense of freedom.

Strangely enough, the awareness of another liberation, which was in its own way no less radical, seems to be only poor and confused. I refer to the collective liberation from collective dogmatic thinking.

It might be hard to imagine nowadays, but in 1950 the majority of the Dutch population believed that a hell existed, and that a bad life or destination could bring you there and that unbaptized died children would undoubtedly end there. And that redemption from that threat could proceed through Jesus.

To be freed from such oppressive dogmatism seems to me to a memorable happening. And indeed, some do remember that liberation as groundbreaking, and can link a date to it. For example, the recently deceased philosopher and former priest Samuel IJsseling, who locates the turn in the year 1968. “Suddenly it was allowed to discuss whatever you liked”, he said in an interview with Ger Groot, “which was previously almost unthinkable. That was a joy, belief me.”

If a day could be indicated on which this liberation has taken place, that day would be worthy of an annual celebration. But, of course, there is not such a day, this kind of  liberations proceed in a more fuzzy and gradual way than a physical liberation. Perhaps this fuzziness is precisely the reason why this liberation is also regularly questioned, or why the oppressive character of the then prevailing dogma is neglected. The latter I believe to perceive in recent articles, and I have these in mind when I talk about a poor and confused notion of this ‘other liberation’.

Neglect or even denial of the liberation of Christian dogma I encountered in a recent column by James Kennedy. He believes that the reasons for secularization are often not properly displayed. “It's not a matter of restrictive dogma”, he says, but of changing life styles. “Parents don’t give their children the spiritual support they need to maintain a philosophy of life, perhaps because they themselves no longer believe in it.”

In other words, I think to myself, they were being allowed gradually to say what they thought. And even though it was gradual, and though only in the course of time they discovered that until then others had determined for them what to think – it remains a liberation.

Another author, Paul van Geest, downplays the dogmatic oppression – and therewith the liberation – through a semantic debate about the word fundamentalism. He does so in response to Naema Tahir, who wrote in Trouw that, in terms of fundamentalism, many Muslims are not so different from Luther. Van Geest rejects that suggestion, because it was precisely Luther who let go of the literal reading of the Bible.

But by arguing this way, Van Geest ignores the wider meaning of ‘fundamentalism’, as it exists in common parlance. In it, the meaning of the word is no longer limited to the historical-literal reading of the Bible or Koran, but it stands for: to remain meticulously within once handed down frameworks, or dogmatic thinking. That’s why nowadays for example you also have ‘enlightenment fundamentalists’ or ‘human rights fundamentalists’.

From that perspective, Luther may indeed be regarded a fundamentalist, namely an ‘Augustine fundamentalist’. Because, under the direction of Augustine he relates – as Van Geest himself says – everything he reads in the Bible to (the coming of) Christ, however big the number of artifices he needs for this. That’s what you would call ‘fundamentalist’,  or ‘dogmatic’.

With his portrayal of Luther, Van Geest presents half of the kind of the ‘other liberation’ that I try to focus on. He recalls the liberation from a literal reading of a foundational document. The other half – namely the liberation from a reading of the Bible and creation as prescribed by the tradition; in this case: the Christological way of reading – he does not mention. Probably Van Geest does not need such liberation, because he personally does not experience any oppression. But the point is: in Luther it would not be available, Tahir is just right at that point.

Nevertheless, also the latter liberation somewhere after the war for large groups of Dutch actually occurred.

Also see What happened in the West?

maandag 1 juni 2015

Ten bridges too far


I can not see it otherwise. Pleasant cooperation begins and ends with knowing of each other what you’re doing. Also in such a mega-organization like the municipality of Amsterdam.

Even if that means that policy makers sometimes have to know exactly some details of the logistics of a form or informationflow. And that a manager must be able to dive into the exact records of one of his products and must be able to follow the process of creation.

That’s ten bridges too far, I know that now too. Because they don’t wánt that at all, those managers and policy makers, for various reasons.

Therefore it is all the more remarkable that recently, just before my departure as ‘clarifyer of workprocesses’, I was allowed several times to experience the flow that occurs when six or seven people together harmonize their process – their daily bread – and feel taken seriously in it. That generates a specific relaxed kind of job satisfaction.

But now we are back again at the lonely, individual process-tinkerers. Or at the collective brown-paper products that are admittedly created with great flow, but of which after a year nobody knows where they are.

But one time it will be fixed well again – I can not see it otherwise.

Also see Live to see

zondag 24 mei 2015

Where do universal values bring us?


I sense in myself an alarming degree of ruthlessness and cynicism. But I cannot get rid of it. When the misery of this world comes to me on this scale on rickety boats I feel in myself: this is too big for us, just capsize. That’s what I mean by alarming.

But I really don’t manage to believe in the universalism of the pope or of human rights fundamentalists. Rather that in theory everyone has equal dignity – it’s not that hard to agree with that. But not that everyone who actually wants to go here would be welcome by definition.

If you think that, like the pope or enthusiastic utopians do, then you have no idea what it takes to keep a society like ours going. Because what are we talking about? About a messy conglomerate of innumerable and sometimes heavy conflicts for which on a daily basis large amounts of ingenuity and energy are needed to steer them into acceptable and reasonable channels. Via jurisdiction, health care, political compromises, scientific research work. Often in a difficult, sometimes embarrassing way, but it works.

This delicate social fabric can only be exposed to brutal disturbances from outside on penalty of total disintegration. Not to want to acknowledge that, I consider a reproachable failure of utopians. If it is true that not to absorb refugees can be considered a crime - and I think that's the case – then for me that holds equally true for persevering in a blind utopian simplification. A crime of which I am sometimes tempted to accuse pope Francis and other human rights fundamentalists.

With absolute, universal values one doesn’t get far and that is certainly tragic. But it is our responsibility to recognize that. Trained in the perverse discipline of history, I agree with Luuk van Middelaar when he says: “The moral right of the Good Samaritan endures as long as everything stays organized. It can not draw the line between ‘You In’ and ‘You out’ - and in our finite world such a limit always presents itself”.

The utopian philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy too might do well to rethink his 2011 appeal for an Allied invasion of Libya. To that apply the words of another columnist, Rob de Wijk: “Randomness may certainly be the outcome when our moral compass is more important than the law”.

Also see Acceptable cynicism

dinsdag 19 mei 2015

Levinas and Bergson


The biggest difference between the philosophers Henri Bergson and Emmanuel Levinas may well be situated in the cult status enjoyed by Bergson in his time as a philosopher. In Paris he invariably drew full houses, and in the US his books went by the hundreds of thousands over the counter when Bergson visited New York soon after 1900. That definitely can not be said about Levinas. He was listened to, but he was not a public philosopher.

As an outward feature the two have, whether partial or not, a Jewish descent in common. Levinas came from a Lithuanian Jewish family, Bergson was born of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.

More substantively, there is – at least initially – quite some shared territory. Or rather, there  is common ground between Bergson and Edmund Husserl, who is considered the great teacher of Levinas. You can say that Bergson and Husserl had one great concern in common. And that, with both, their thinking can be seen as attempts to answer that concern. Their problem was the materialistic spirit of the second half of the 19th century, the period in which Bergson and Husserl grew up and started their careers.

Husserl formulated his objections as follows: science, including psychology, hardly values what things mean to people. It is only interested in the existence of things. That has to be researched, proven and measured. What they mean for a human being is disregarded.

Bergson’s objection to the spirit of the times was that something, in the eyes of the then serious scientists, qualified as ‘real’ if it was measurable. With them, things – literally –counted only when they were demarcated and cut up and could be made manageable.

He illustrated this thesis on the basis of our dealing with the phenomenon of time. It was according to Bergson no coincidence that in 1884 the International Standard Time was introduced, and that seconds, minutes and hours from now were the same all over the world. What is lost in it, he said, is the inner experience of time. Thereby he was referring  for example to the phenomenon that for us a minute may seem an hour and vice versa. In the words of Husserl Bergson’s point can be expressed as follows: the deepest sense of time escapes us.

Both Bergson and Husserl found that the hierarchy should be reversed: not the flat-materialistic world was to be considered the real world, but the territory of the subjective meanings was the real reality.

Now back to Levinas. He starts, as I said, as a student of Husserl and follows him first in his quest for meaning as something primarily to be found beyond the material, everyday life. But soon Levinas becomes impressed by another student of Husserl, namely Heidegger. His exhortation to precisely recognize our lived, material existence – with its everyday concerns, labor, tools – as a wellspring of meanings, hits Levinas full in the face.

In the same way as this idea marked for Heidegger the point at which he took distance from Husserl, so it did for Levinas. From about 1930 he left Husserl’s, late 19th century triggered, thinking behind. Therewith also Bergson and Levinas had driven apart in their orientations.

Also see Sartre, Levinas and the Café and Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further