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?