donderdag 31 maart 2016

Values as natural phenomena

In general, the columns by Jan Kuitenbrouwer appeal to me because of his wit and the quality of his considerations. But this time I could not follow him.

Kuitenbrouwer has his fill of ‘European values’. There is a lot about them lately, he says, but the question is whether they exist, at least as significant phenomenon. “One of the reasons that you hear the word ‘value’ so often nowadays, is because it lends itself as a euphemism for ‘norm’”. Values are thin and without obligation, contrary to norms, because one must respect and maintain them, even as a politician. That is tricky, “so we rather talk about values, a natural phenomenon on which we have no influence”, according to Kuitenbrouwer.

I got caught on the word ‘natural phenomenon’, as a category in which he puts ‘values’. My first objection is that, as far as values are considered as natural phenomenon (ie: as universally given, applicable to everyone and everything), they are directly problematic. This applies for example to the value of ‘human rights’. The naturally attributed content  would be the following: of every human being, anywhere in the world, human rights must be guaranteed. The value of human rights, anywhere in the world, would then be my concern here and now. The boundlessness of that thought is problematic: it  immediately turns it into a slogan. So, insofar as you consider your values as a natural phenomena, they become meaningless. Maybe that’s what Kuitenbrouwer wanted to say.

But, and this is my second objection, the assertion that values would be a natural phenomenon (that is: universally true), is false for a number of values. The values of freedom, democracy and rule of law as mentioned by Kuitenbrouwer are certainly not natural in the sense that any thoughtful person would take them for granted. In China, for example, they often question them and Erdogan once declared: “For us [Islamists] democracy is like a streetcar. We ride until we are where we should be and then we jump off”. This implies that values can not be seen as natural phenomena, but are rather tied to (national) communities who have decided that within the limits of their territory those values hold, or not, or for a while.

So, people dó have large influence on that. In fact, those values exist only insofar as they are embraced by specific communities and not otherwise. And Kuitenbrouwer is right, values get actualized only when they are acted upon, just to embrace them is not enough. Well, sometimes that’s the case indeed, see Merkel and refugees; sometimes it is not, see Merkel and her haggling with Erdogan. This suggests for me an acceptable gap in the relationship between values and norms.

Anyway, you obviously need a limited validity range if you do not want values to function as empty and meaningless as Kuitenbrouwer suggests they do. That could imply that Europe will regard upholding human rights outside Europe less as its task. To gain relevance.

Also see Borders and Where do universal values bring us?

dinsdag 22 maart 2016

How Jewish is Maimonides?

Recently, I followed an interesting course on Maimonides, in which his life, acts and  work were discussed. While being confronted with all of that, you can not fail being impressed again by this giant.

Nevertheless I am left with a serious question, especially in reaction to the book The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides. The teacher of the course told that the rabbi/philosopher wrote that book for the enlightened Jewish minds of his time who had come into contact with Aristotle’s rationalism. Maimonides wanted to show that the same Greek wisdom was to be found also in Judaism and that therefore the Jewish intellectual elite did not have to go looking elsewhere, where according to him they would easily get lost.

However, that Jewish equivalent of Greek wisdom should be available only for the initiated, and had to remain secret for ordinary people because they were too stupid to understand the doctrine. The initiate elite could then make sure the uninitiated people receive the pieces secret doctrine at the time they were, in the opinion of the elite, ready for it.

This fact of a secret doctrine for initiates with a corresponding social hierarchy strikes  me as contrarious to the direction of the rabbis from the beginning of the era. In rabbinical writings, I believe to hear arguments for study of Torah as something that preferably as many as possible should be able to participate in throughout their lives. “Go and learn”, Hillel said, and in saying so he did not address specifically the smarter people. And what they had to learn was nothing secret, on the contrary, it belonged to Revelation.

That is not to say that in the Jewish tradition exclusion did not occur. There were at various times in various places aristocracies of rabbinical dynasties who divided leading positions among themselves and didn’t let in outsiders. But – and this is my point – that practice was not supported by an ideology that wants to keep a priori certain knowledge limited to a group of initiates.

Therefore, in my view it’s very logical and understandable that internal Jewish opposition came against Maimonides. Which led to the so-called ‘Maimonidean controversies’ that regularly flared up from the 12th to the 16th century. Among others, the philosopher Chasdai Crescas manifested himself as opponent of Maimonides.

For him and other opponents in the controversies something big was at stake, namely the following. Through his avid embrace of universalizing reason Maimonides takes leave, according to them, of the kind of rationality which is employed by Tanakh and Talmud. The latter is a rationality that allows for plurality of different logics, for inconsistencies and for the tragedy of conflicting logics that nonetheless are legitimate.

That appeals to me. A danger may be that with that thought you end up in romantic or mystical atmospheres. The opposition of Crescas against Maimonides has been interpreted along those lines, but that’s not what I aim at. What I am looking for is, right on the level of rationality, an approach that precisely in its way of dealing with reason – or reasons – may be called more Jewish than that of Maimonides.

I think that can be found in Levinas is because he, without being romantic, for all thinking “presupposes a specific political community”. These last words are from the philosopher Dennis Baert, and if you say “I do not understand”, then I agree. But those words in any case point to something different from what is universally valid. It’s primarily my intuition which says that this has something to do with the previous. But I’ll have to study on that further.

Also see Wittgenstein as Talmudist

vrijdag 18 maart 2016

The whole world – or just a small part?

The relationship of Western culture to the bordercrossing and sometimes terrorist ambitions of Islam is more complex than is often thought. There is a strong inner relationship between the universalist orientations of the West and of Islam. That’s my conclusion after reading an enlightening article by the Arabist Maurice Blessing.

This conclusion is reached by the observation that 1. both the West and Islam start from a universalist, transnational ideal; 2. this ideal is not satisfied with less than global universalism; and 3. to achieve that goal the use of force is justified.

The presence of a universalist ideal appeared in the West since the time that Christianity got solid foothold there. From that moment it was its declared objective to from the West further Christianize the world. Think of the Catholic  and Protestant missionaries who certainly at the time of the 18th and 19th century imperialism, took it for their task (‘the white man’s burden’) to spread the Christian message to the farthest corners of the earth. When Christianity began to make way for the values of the French Revolution, such as democracy and human rights, the universalist fervor was no less.

In the case of Islam, according to Blessing, there is a religious commitment to ‘higher spheres’ that by its nature can accept no limits that prevent its spread. Because of that universalist orientation Islam can not but consider all national, particularistic borders as void and meaningless. Not only of non-Islamic countries, but also of Islamic countries, as evidenced by the change of the name ISIS (‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, so tied to a limited territory) in IS (‘Islamic State’). Loyalty should not be shown to human citizenship but to Allah. And Islam does not go for less than the whole world.

The conviction of having a universally applicable message was sufficient legitimacy for Christians to proceed to conversion under pressure. For example, of Jews in Spain, or of Indians in South America. And later, for the secular revolutionaries of the RAF and the Red Brigades to perpetrate their attacks. To the revolutionary Muslims it is sufficient justification for committing acts of terrorism around the world and for the destruction of national heritage.

Thus revolutionary fervor, stemming from the sincere belief to have a beneficial or even spiritual message for everyone, might point to greater affinity between Islam and the West then we usually tend to assume. A – not unimportant – contemporary difference is that the West has tempered the use of violence by attributing the monopoly of violence precisely to the national state. Such a concession to the national state radical Islam will not easily do, says Blessing. Indeed, Islamic terror is the very protest against this domestication of Islam and its binding to national borders.

But even with that difference the congeniality in universalist orientation between the West and Islam remains striking. Expanding your ideal all over the earth, as a necessary part of the ideal’s concept, appears to be an inseparable characteristic of both Christianity/Enlightenment and Islam. Could it have to do with a certain Greek conception of truth? That something called ‘truth’ only deserves the name if it has proven to be ‘universally valid’? Well, then you must first conquer the world.

Whatever you may say of the Jewish tradition – that it inspires people to discrimination against Israeli Arabs and encourages colonization of the West Bank –for roughly two thousand years it is a fact that Jewish attention is directed particularisticly, namely towards the welfare of the Jewish group. You might find that  narrow-minded, but maybe nicely modest as well.

In any case, the urge to missionate or conquer the world, including the immense brutality that goes with it, is foreign to the Jewish tradition. Except of course if you believe in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

Also see Borders and Countries without borders

zondag 6 maart 2016

Failed states

What is worse than a violent state? Answer: a failed state.

That means, at least from the perspective of ordinary citizens, that you can better live in Iran than in Iraq, and that you are better off in Egypt than in Libya. In these cases it isn’t any longer about having a nice time, rather about degrees of chaos and terror. In Iran, you can be arrested for walking without a veil, and hanging people is the order of the day, but there is also protection from criminals, there is still water from the tap and public lighting still works. In the failed states of Iraq and Libya you cann’t even be sure of that.

The development of Western thought about the state follows the line of the above degrees of (un)organizedness. Generally Thomas Hobbes (first half 17th century) is considered to be the one who called for strong central authority as a means of guaranteeing a minimum of order and security for citizens. To achieve that, the monopoly, ie the exclusive right to the use of force, should be attributed to the state.

Thus Hobbes stands for the step of failed or non-existent state to state, while he did not care much about abuse of the state monopoly on violence. The risk of internal violence of the state towards its citizens did not interest him a lot.

That only came in the second half of the 17th century with John Locke, who formulated basic rights for citizens, such as freedom of religion and expression and assembly, with a corresponding obligation on the state to respect them. The orderly violent state thus made way for an orderly decent state.

So far the development of a state in a positive direction, but obviously states can also pass through the various stages of state development in the wrong direction. With  Turkey this seems to be the case: it was about to step through the route from Hobbes to Locke, but Erdogan made it turn tail.

Sometimes I’m afraid the same will happen to Israel. In my opinion until recently with regard to Israel you could speak of a decent state – w ith the not inconsiderable note that this was true insofar as you are a Jewish resident. But at the moment it is too much about curtailment of cultural expressions and freedoms for its own residents. Israel is not going to be a failed state soon, but could it perhaps be that the road back from Locke to Hobbes is taken here indeed?