woensdag 18 februari 2015

Professional philosophy's sad course

What do the philosophers Levinas and Nussbaum have in common except that they are Jewish?

What strikes me – and I don’t know to what extent that’s Jewish – is that they both started off with  similar good philosophical intentions. Ánd: that in both cases the trade somewhat has been spoiled.

Levinas’s good intention consisted in his wish to, while reasoning, escape the tyranny of reason. That was bound to fail, you might say, but nevertheless he díd it, a large part of his philosophical life. He showed, up to the very way he formulated and argued, how Western philosophy, at least from Plato onwards, can be called an exercise of equalization of diversity through the uniformity of reason. He called that equalization the ‘domination of the Same’, and opposed to that the Other.

Nussbaum formulated her good intention as: getting away from the Platonic abstractions to which our society and science in her eyes are still too much attached. By that she was referring to an unhealthy privileging of mind over body, of policymaking over implementation and of abstract ideals over concrete goals. To get rid of that, she sought to draw upon he thinking of Aristotle, because he would do more justice to the concreteness of human existence than Plato did.

But then the philosophical lifes of Levinas (1906-1995) and Nussbaum (1947) are quite different, as much as the areas and subjects they dwell upon diverge widely. Levinas worked until about sixty at a Jewish school, first as a teacher, then as director. Besides he published a lot in the fields of philosophy and judaïsm. 

Nussbaum, after graduating, taught at Harvard, Brown University and Chicago. In addition she – often in collaboration with development economist Amartya Sen – does research in the field of economic development, ethics and pedagogy, and publishes extensively on these subjects.

ut amidst all these differences I discover a parallel, and one that to me is pretty shocking. Namely that, as the philosophical careers of Levinas and Nussbaum develop, they seem to get further away from their original intentions as mentioned above.

In itself that needs not to be a wrong development. Indeed, advancing insights are always welcome. But it does not look like advancing insights. Because in that case the changes of direction should have taken place in an argued way, in the sense that Levinas and Nussbaum convinced us that Plato might have been more right than they first thought.

But that’s not what they do. It seems, rather, that they fall prey to the cunning suction to which philosophy is easily exposed and through which especially professional philosophers – by the absence of confrontation with compelling practical issues? – slip into the trap of universalizing reason.

So, I make the connection with Levinas’s and Nussbaum’s professional philosophical positions. In the case of Levinas, because I see the disappointing about-face displayed when, after a long life as a philosophical outsider, he in the sixties reached the academic position he so coveted. From this position he published the book Otherwise than Being, which – unlike the work of his early and middle period – abandons the anarchist, undecided openness between the Same and the Other in favor of a fundamental, foundational position for the Other. I tend to see in this philosophical hierarchy the reflection of the academic, in a sense Platonic, hierarchy into which Levinas then had entered.

Nussbaum from the outset sincerely sought the connection between her thinking and pedagogical and developmental work. But in the eyes of many commentators those efforts soon after her breakthrough with the book The Fragility of Goodness got stuck in excessively theoretical and abstract arguments. In the formulation of medical doctor/philosopher Bert Keizer: “The problem with people like Nussbaum is that they only deal with people like Nussbaum”.

So, the decline into an intellectual Platonic schema in her career occurred much earlier than in Levinas’s career. However, a parallel can be found in the idea that a position at the academy may have played a role: Nussbaum has from the outset been a professional philosopher.

Should we, therefore, better not mourn when independent philosophy faculties are threatened with closure, as in Rotterdam and Amsterdam?

Maybe not, as long as there continues to be philosophizing.

Also see Levinas and Spinoza