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