Sunday, December 27, 2015

235. Beyond postmodernism

This blog and my philosophy books form an exercise in moving beyond postmodernism, preserving what is useful in it, and replacing what is not. The two main features of my approach have been the use of a pragmatist approach (building on Dewey, among others) and, as an extension of that, a dynamic approach of meaning, truth, identity and ethics, in terms not of what they are but how they arise and change. Following Heidegger: ‘being’ as a verb, not a substantive.

Postmodern discounting of rationality and objective knowledge does not necessarily imply radical relativism, in the sense of claiming that any interpretation or view is as good as any other. No postmodern philosopher claims that.

However, postmodernists are often cagey, evasive about truth. Some (e.g. Derrida) seem to replace argumentation with ‘narratives’, without claim to any truth, as long as they are ‘interesting’. This, together with the rejection of universals, produces irony. That is in danger of avoiding commitment to any position, and a dodging of responsibility. Without any notion of truth there would not only be no science, but also no ordinary daily discourse. We talk all the time about whether a politician or the media, or the neighbour, or one’s child or partner is telling the truth. So, what notion of truth remains?

Inspired by pragmatist thought, in this blog I adopted the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’: one should be willing to give reasons, and arguments for what one asserts, and be open to discourse about them and to alternative views or interpretations. One can claim to have such arguments without claiming any final, or ultimate truth. Here, truth is the best we can do with our admittedly imperfect, biased, prejudiced views. Let others help to unearth those imperfections, biases and prejudices. And when that happens one should have the honesty to say: what I said was false, i.e. not true, i.e. not warranted.

Counter to Derrida, I maintain the notion of reference. Of course, we never know objectively whether what we say refers to anything ‘real’ ‘out there’ that is ‘present’ to us. But in daily language the intention to refer is there. We  could not deal with the world or each other without it. ‘Walk the dog’ without reference? ‘Take a chair’ without reference?

The thing is this. We should allow for reference that fails and varies between people and circumstances. In this blog I tried to work this out by also adopting the notion of ‘sense’, next to reference, as the way in which reference is decided. I proposed that this is done on the basis of a repertoire of associations gathered along one’s life path, hence different from those of others. And which from them is picked out to decide reference is triggered by the context. ‘Framing’ that is called in psychology. In item 34 in this blog I tried to elucidate this with the notion of ‘scripts’.

Difference of sense for different people, yielding differences in cognition, in what I called ‘cognitive distance’, is indispensable for individual identity and for change of knowledge and meaning in communication. Here I preserve and connect difference and dynamics as two key elements of postmodernism.

However, all this does leave a vestige of relativism. Views may be ‘incommensurable’, lacking shared meanings for debate, despite tenacious efforts at mutual understanding, using all the force of metaphor, images and joint practice that one can muster.

Next, the issue of the subject. Being embedded in the world, the subject does not disappear. Being socially constituted need not entail that it has no independence. What is constructed socially is individualised, and provides the basis for action, for taking a stand and responsibility. The condition that personal identity is multiple, opaque and variable does not make it disappear.

Zizek discusses the postmodern loss of social order (the ‘symbolic order’) by which limits and directions were taken for granted. Freedom from those creates disorientation, which evokes a groping for new certainties. I will not discuss that here.

The unworldliness of absolute, strict and fixed universals need not require a rejection of universals in any form (see item 222 for forms of universality). I go along with the postmodern view that the particular precedes the universal and trumps it morally, but that need not imply the eclipse of universals. Here also, the relation between the two is dynamic. Universals arise as contingent generalizations by which we abstract from experience to guide practice that leads to new experience that shifts the universal.

In sum, I employ the dynamic streak from postmodernism to save it from its mistakes.

However, while change is fundamental, I recognize the need for stability, in alternation with change. I will develop that in a later series of items.

Monday, December 21, 2015

234. What is postmodernism?

What ‘postmodernism’ means is contested. ‘Postmodernity’ is our present society. In one sense, postmodernism is a cultural response to that. In art and architecture it means a mixing of styles. It can also mean a focus on appearance rather than fact, the superficial rather than what may lie behind it, opinion rather than argument. Most widely, it entails a loss of old certainties, and of social, spiritual and intellectual order. According to Lyotard, the horrors of totalitarianism in the 20th century have created suspicion of ‘grand narratives’. Postmodernism recoils from absolutes and universals into relativism and particulars.

Here I look at philosophical notions of the subject, identity, rationality, knowledge, truth and meaning.    

Postmodernism criticizes, and to some extent reverses modernism. Modernism is born from the thought of Descartes and the Enlightenment. Its core, I propose, is threefold. First, the idea of a Cartesian subject or self, as a spectator viewing the world, the object, from outside, separated from it. Second, the idea that the self is rational and autonomous. Third, that rationality, in knowledge and moral judgement, has a foundation in indubitable, universal and fixed methods and ideas.

Analytical philosophy adds the notion, in its theory of language, of meaning as reference: words refer to things present in reality, and correct reference is the criterion of truth. 

Postmodernism, then, is characterized by opposition to these points. There are four main themes. First, the subject, the self, cannot be separated from the object, is part of the world (‘thrown into it’, Heidegger says), constituted by being in that world, and this constitution forms its view of it. The self is socially and culturally constituted, not autonomous. Identity, individual and cultural, is opaque, plural and subject to change. Second, universality, in ethics and knowledge, is rejected in favour of the diverse, singular, individual. Meaning is context-dependent, pluralistic. Third, rationality is discounted, sometimes dwindling to nothing, and free will is limited or absent. Fourth, all metaphysics of substance, objects in reality, fixed truths and identities, is rejected in favour of open-endedness, in ongoing flux.

More or less postmodern philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, Rorty, and Toulmin. However, they did not all share all the above characteristics, nor did they accept the term ‘postmodernism’ for their thought.

Some postmodernists are more radical than others. For Derrida there is no knowledge, just texts. For him the ‘presence’ of objects in reference is an illusion. The idea that one can start thought and judgement with a clean slate, without prejudice, bias or interest, is an illusion. Knowledge is not objective. Ideas and expressions hide underlying, unspoken interests and positions or aspirations of power (Nietzsche, Foucault). There is no truth or it is contingent, multiple, and open-ended.

Open-endedness of ideas and truth was a feature already of Montaigne’s philosophy, and it connects postmodernism with pragmatism. Words as tools rather than bearers of truth connect with pragmatism and with Wittgenstein.

Attempts are made to unravel unspoken pre-conceptions, to delve underlying logics, forces, motives, powers or conditions of discourse. With Nietzsche this is called ‘genealogy’, with Foucault ‘archaeology’, and with Derrida ‘deconstruction’.

Words entail conceptualization, interpretation. They are seldom literal descriptions. Language is predominantly metaphorical. According to Nietzsche language consists of mobile metaphors. There is not one single true interpretation, of nature or books, no single truth underlying texts. The meaning of a word depends on that of other words (Saussure), in some context of action, constituting a ‘language game’ (Wittgenstein). Outside the game meanings are lost or changed. The example is chess. Away from the board a piece of chess loses its meaning.
Postmodernism is justified in its criticism of the Enlightenment, but it goes overboard. It has been accused (e.g. by Zizek) of abolishing the subject, which yields loss of agency.[i] In the surrender of illusions of certainty and loss of truth, arguments are surrendered to opinion, and responsibility evaporates in irony. Society turns into a shouting match in an arena of exhibition.

[i] I doubt the validity of this accusation. The agent is indeed in danger of disappearing, in the view that it is constituted culturally, by which individuality might disappear, but on the other hand Postmodernism also emphasizes differentiation, and hence individuality.

Friday, December 18, 2015

233. Constructive alienation

The notion of alienation is best known from the work of Marx. It mostly has a negative connotation of not being able to express and be oneself, and to be accepted, in work or communication. This has three elements.

First, not getting the opportunity to express oneself. Second, not being heard or understood. Third, not being accepted for what one claims to be.

Concerning the third, whatever one claims to be, to deserve in position and recognition, is to be ratified by whatever categories apply in the established ‘symbolic order’ (to use that term from Lacan and Zizek). One may claim to be a philosopher but this is recognized only when one has a degree in that field or publications that have been well received professionally or by the wider public. Zizek called such lack of recognition and legitimation a ‘second death’, a symbolic death, next to physical death of the body.

Here, alienation is that ‘I am not perceived or credited to be what I feel I am’. On one extreme, as an outsider one may hardly be recognised at all, hardly have symbolic presence. On another extreme, as a celebrity one may have too much symbolic presence, distorting what I feel I am.  

However, perfect expression, being fully and faithfully present in the symbolic order, could apply only if one assumes that there is a given, coherent, unified, original self to be expressed.

In philosophy since David Hume, later also in Marx, and in postmodern philosophy, that notion of the subject is waived. The subject is seen as multiple, often incoherent, sometimes even inconsistent, and in flux. It is constituted by action and communicative interaction, from response from others. Thus imperfection of expression is inherently problematic because there is no autonomous self to express. Nevertheless, imperfect expression is still a cause of feeling forlorn.

Alienation, not being fully understood and accepted, is the price one pays for having an identity. One cannot have an identity without some degree of difference or distance to others.  

Alienation is also inherent in the constitution of the self. This was recognized by Marx, and is called ‘constitutive alienation’. As I have argued in this blog, one needs opposition from the other to develop a self, to have any chance of correcting one’s myopia and prejudice, to gain freedom from it. Imperfect expression may call forth correction or enrichment by the response from others. It then becomes imperfection on the move, in the ongoing making of the self.

In preceding items in this blog I discussed Alfred Hirschman’s notions of ‘voice’, ‘exit’ and ‘loyalty’. Voice is needed to maintain and repair relationships when they run into trouble, as they mostly do, rather than fleeing from them, in exit. In the present analysis, voice assumes a deeper value, as constitutive of the self.

Then, the issue is not so much an issue of autonomy, the opportunity to express a given self, but of automorphism, the opportunity to form the self.

Of course, this requires attention from others, not just to listen to what one has to say, but being open to it, even if it sounds eccentric, giving it the benefit of the doubt, and next also to oppose or correct it, not only allowing for expression but also yielding impression. One not only needs to join but also to have a rejoinder. This appears to be increasingly lacking in large areas of modern work, due to increased flexibilization, as I discussed earlier, in item 211 of this blog. Perhaps this resembles what Marx called the ‘commodification of work’.

So, by constructive alienation I mean two things: alienation as a basis for construction of the self, and alienation from the sources of such construction. If one is robbed of opportunities for the dialectic of expression and construction one is alienated from construction.

That occurs when after sending a message one receives no evidence that it has been read, or when there is no response, no rejoinder. This happens often in communication via the Internet. Sending a message is a bid for symbolic recognition, and lack of response yields alienation. For lack of response one is also alienated from the sources of the construction of the self.  Thus, proliferation of messaging yields proliferation of alienation. We call this the communication revolution. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

232. Will robots have voice?

What will happen when robots take on more and more tasks, with increasing intelligence? What if a robot is opinionated, its views going against the established order, or against the will of its maker or owner?
Presently, an intellectual, scientist, or worker on a shop floor with contrary views cannot easily be silenced, in democracies. But robots may be simply switched off, or re-programmed to conform.

What will this do to people, if with regard to robots they no longer need to defend their views, and can bend the views of robots to their own? Would people then prefer to consort with robots rather than people, for the ease and comfort of it? Would that make them more self-involved, narcissistic even, turning robots into mirrors?

In this blog I argued that one needs the opposition form the other to detect one’s own myopia, to nourish a flourishing life. This is needed, I argued, to achieve the highest form of freedom, which includes freedom from the bias of the self.

If robots are self-learning, by adapting their intelligence to what is successful, more rigorously and perfectly than humans, will this be a source of contrariness, defiance? People have a variety of sources of experience, in jobs, families, friendship, sports, travel and chance encounters, to feed their cognition and morality. Will robots have access to such diversity of experience? Will the owner of the robot, having invested in it, be willing to grant it unproductive time, in a range of private activities?

Next to his notions of ‘exit’ and ‘voice’, Albert Hirschman recognized the possibility of ‘loyalty’, which is acceptance, surrender to a faulty relationship.

Robots may undergo forced exit, being switched off, or may be programmed for loyalty. Will they be allowed to raise voice, or even be programmed for it? Or will they ever be self-generative enough to grasp voice, or even to impose loyalty on people? How moral will they be? And how would they acquire morality? I discussed that in item 179 of this blog.

Monday, December 7, 2015

231. The temptation of exit

Trust and fruitful relationships require a commitment to ‘voice’, the effort to acknowledge problems in a relationship, view them soberly and approach them constructively and reasonably, and to solve them together, in give and take.

It requires an effort at mutual understanding. Crossing what in this blog I have called ‘cognitive distance’, differences in views, perspective, norms and knowledge, trying to understand and be understood. That requires adequate ‘absorptive capacity’, ability to understand, from experience and knowledge, skills of empathy, imagining oneself in the shoes of the other, and skill of expression, with the use of metaphor to phrase one’s views in terms familiar to the other. It requires trust in giving space to the other, running the risk that the other employs that space to one’s detriment.

That makes voice difficult, full of effort, and risky. It is easier to 'exit': walk out, break the relationship, and be done with it. Differences in perspective, views and knowledge can be fruitful but also bothersome.

When uncertain, averse to risk, or mistrustful, one may go for pre-emptive exit: getting out before the other does. One may be hesitant to invest in a relationship with a high risk of loss. This may apply, in particular, to love relationships, in fear of getting hurt, and ‘wasting one’s best years’. Having been cheated or deserted a lot, one will stand more ready to cut losses and flee.

According to Alain Badiou[i] and Simon Critchley[ii] love is not comfort and contentment but ongoing effort. It strikes a gap in the self, to receive a gift over which one has no power, and giving something over which one also has no power. It is a conquering of the impossible. It is easier not to engage in it.

Also, the grass may seem greener on the other side of the hill, tempting exit to gain more.

Lacking self-confidence, feeling vulnerable, one may be on the look-out for negative signs, tempted to give a negative interpretation to harmless, even well-intended acts.

This is strengthened by the psychological phenomenon of ‘loss aversion’: more weight is attached, with stronger emotions, to potential loss than to potential gain. In a ‘loss frame’ people may fall into emotional extremes. Even businessmen have been known to litigate in revenge, at great cost, without the slightest chance of success.  

Third parties may help, in a ‘heart to heart’ with a good friend, perhaps, or consultation with a professional intermediary, dousing flames of fear and emotion, defusing foregone conclusions, recognizing the facts, showing the positive, checking out suspicions.

In sum, voice is hard, and fragile. It takes courage, commitment and perseverance.

And when, finally, a decision to exit is taken, with good reasons, the question becomes how to conduct it.

One form of exit is the ambush: prepare exit on the sly, and spring it by surprise, dropping the bomb, leaving the other in confusion and distress. That minimizes the opportunity for the other to block or obstruct the exit. It is a tempting form of exit.

But it also catapults the other in a loss frame that may trigger extremes of revenge, in conflict, litigation, slander and destruction of reputation.

The other option is a voice mode of exit. Here one alerts the other in time, helps to unravel the relationship, giving support in exit, and some form of compensation, perhaps, and help in finding an alternative. Here also, third parties may help as intermediaries.

Are the dedication to voice, and the skills needed, resisting the temptations of exit, sufficiently part of education? 

[i] Alain Badiou, 2009, Eloge d’amour, Flammarion.
[ii] Simon Critchley, 2010, How to stop living and start worrying, Polity.

Friday, December 4, 2015

230. The virtue of distinction

In classical Greek, next to eros, passionate love, and philia, loving friendship, there is agape, generalized, undifferentiated love for one’s neighbour. The latter became a paramount value in Christianity, seeing people equal as creatures of God. Nietzsche, and following him several others (e.g. Onfray), rejected this, opting for variety and distinction. Achieving distinction and making a distinction between people one deals with.

For making distinction, maintaining emotional distance to people, Onfray recalls Schopenhauer’s parable of the hedgehogs. In winter they are cold and want to creep close to each other for warmth. But then they prick each other and move out again. So they move in and out until they find a distance with maximum warmth with minimum pricks.

Onfray proceeds to use the notion of concentric circles.[i] In the innermost circle loved ones, eros and philia, with whom one has a sense of shared destiny, or identifies with, in mutual dedication, sharing, and altruism. In the second circle acquaintances one associates with regularly, socially and in work, with forbearance and empathy. Next, a circle of people one meets and deals with superficially, haphazardly and incidentally. Then, a circle of anonymous people one is indifferent to. Finally, a circle with enemies or people one despises, or hates, and avoids.

The closer the circle, the more one needs to maintain and nourish the relationship. For this, the innermost circle especially needs to have a limited number, five or so, to achieve this quality and closeness of relationship. With Internet, a large number of ‘friends’ on Facebook, impossible to all attend to closely, this quality is bound to deteriorate.

I have two qualifications to make. First, while fairness, altruism  and reciprocity apply more for closer circles, justice should apply to all. Second, even towards more distant circles one should remain open to the other, for pleasant or constructive surprise, even when perhaps also guarding against threat. Open to strange beliefs and their possible warrant, and open to debatable ethics. This basic openness and respect remain from Levinassian ethics.   

For achieving distinction, there is the notion of virtú, with classical and Nietzschean virtues of excellence, courage, strength, agency, creation, and putting up a fight when challenged or constrained.

Here, autonomy is sought even while the self is socially constructed. Achieving distinction meets openness in making distinction, in the opportunity from openness to others to improve or transform oneself.

Machiavelli extended the notion of virtú with leadership, effective use of power, in conduct of the prince or war-leader, acting for reasons of state, ruthlessly when needed, including actions that by any other morality would be seen as outright evil. There is debate on whether this was intended as a normative statement of how a ‘prince’ should behave, or no more than a descriptive statement of actual conduct.

What is my answer to Machiavelli? I do grant that on the collective level of the state morally bad actions may be needed to survive. But one should be prepared to give arguments for them, for each specific case, in front of a tribunal, again and again, in terms of necessity (there were no alternatives) and proportionality (to the threat that was inflicted). That is part of what I called ‘debatable ethics’.

[i] Michel Onfray, La sculpture de soi; La morale esthétique, Grasset, 1993.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

229. Exclusion as an incentive for terrorism

I speculated about why ISIS is so tempting to some young people, in item 227 of this blog. I granted that the usual explanation from exclusion, neglect, poverty, discrimination and resulting poor perspectives for work, prosperity and social recognition are probably correct. I added that there must be more to it. Young recruits to ISIS not only come from poor, neglected neighbourhoods such as the French ‘banlieues’ and the quarter of ‘Molenbeek’ in Brussels, but also from reasonably well-to-do, ‘ordinary’ families, and some have had a good education. I suggested two cultural reasons.

First, a thirst for absolutist, theistic religion as a source of higher meaning to one’s life, sought with special poignancy in one’s puberty (which now lasts well into the twenties of life). In Western societies such (Christian) religion has evaporated in the lightness of being, while capitalist society does not yield a replacement in some secular source of spirituality and meaning of life.

Second, I proposed that ISIS offers the opportunity to satisfy a Nietzschean will to power, in the atavistic form of master-slave domination and physical violence (rather than the sublimated form of striving to conquer oneself in transcending oneself).

I now want to add something. I granted that the usual argument from poverty and neglect probably still applies, at least to some recruits. Is there any connection between this and the other reasons? I propose the following line of thought.

Surprisingly, this will bring out the possible effect of the idea of supreme duty from the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. What irony, if part of Enlightenment thought were similar to motives for fundamentalist Muslim terrorism, while ‘we’, in ‘the West’ see that as an attack on our Enlightenment values, and mobilize ourselves to defend them.

Kant demanded that we base our ethics on an idea of supreme duty that is absolutely pure of any motives of material desire, interest, position, or even survival. One should do one’s duty even against one’s own interests, even against survival. Kant added that we need to believe in God as a warrant that satisfying this universal duty indeed constitutes the highest Good.

Kantian ethic took the empty, purely formal form of the ‘Categorical imperative’: do only what you would want to raise to a general maxim for conduct. Content concerning specific conduct was deliberately left out, because it would make the rule dependent on circumstance, while it had to be kept universal. It is as formal and empty as ‘in the will of God’ or ‘Inshallah’.   

Philosophers Lacan and Zizek argued that this renunciation of all material value and interest can only work if there is a masochistic, higher-order (non-material, non-lust satisfying) love for such sacrifice of material values or even life.[i] And that is precisely what ISIS offers.   

The point now is this. The lust for satisfying absolute, Kantian duty renders the material values of income and wealth immaterial, irrelevant, indecent, vile, to be despised. Now those material values were the values that some of the ISIS recruits were lacking. In joining ISIS and its promise of absolutist transcendence, that lack turns into virtue. The recruits can feel superior and relish contempt for the material values that were withheld from them, and for those who have those values, wallow in them, and who did the withholding.

For wat it is worth, the argument confirms my rejection of all forms of absolutism, in ethics or anywhere else, as a correction upon Enlightenment values.         

[i] Called ‘jouissance’ by Lacan.

Monday, November 23, 2015

228. What virtue?

In this blog I have argued for an ethics of multiple virtues, inspired by Aristotle. But how many and what virtues does that entail? If it allows much, what moral constraints are left?

There is a contrast with Christian virtue as moral goodness, in benevolence and compassion, and love of one’s neighbour. Nietzsche strenuously condemned that as a ‘slave mentality’, smothering the flourishing of life. He had a preference for values of ‘virtú’, going back to the classical Greeks, such as valour, strength, agency, power, and excellence.   

In his ethics of multiple virtues, Aristotle included values of empathy, but also courage, honesty, excellence, moderation, generosity, justice, and above all rationality, in the form of prudence: seeking a position between extremes, such as courage in between cowardice and recklessness.

The position to be taken is not necessarily in the middle. What position one takes between extremes depends on the context. A parent seeing its child running into a street with a rush of traffic should dive after it, no matter what the risk. 

I see the value of Aristotle’s prudence of seeking ‘the middle’. But I am Nietzschean enough to also value Dionysian values of exuberance, risk taking, creative destruction, and ecstasy. Sometimes one needs to seek the boundaries, and break out from them. Excellence breeds on extremes.

Yet Nietzsche also valued Apollonian values of harmony and balance, similar perhaps to Aristotle’s balancing between extremes. So, following his lead, we need both: harmony, balance, and creative destruction.

In my cyclical theory of invention, presented in item 31 of this blog, I proposed an alternation between stability and transformation. 

I would include most if not all the virtues that Aristotle included, but for me the supreme value would be different. There I would put a religious value, not with a God and not with a hereafter in the form of eternal life, but a different form of transcendence, connection with something bigger than the self. To me that entails a commitment to contribute to a hereafter in the form of what one leaves behind at death, in the fullest possible use of one’s potential of talents, which would constitute a flourishing life.

This comes close to the Aristotelian values of excellence and realization of potential. It also approaches Levinas, I think, in dedication to the other as evoking awe and empathy. I would emphasize that openness and respect to the other is not opposed to a flourishing life, but part of it, since openness to opposition from the other helps to reduce one’s prejudices, and freedom from prejudice constitutes the highest form of freedom (see item 49 of this blog).

How, then, to reconcile Nietzschean will to power, Aristotelian balance and Levinassian regard of the other? Nietzschean will to power is sublimated in the urge to transform, to rise above oneself. Dedication to the other is not limitless, as Levinas demanded. Defending one’s own freedom from suppression by the other is also part of virtue. And opposition to the other is beneficial to him/her, as his/her opposition is to me.

This may also, I think, be rendered, more concretely, in Hirschman’s terms of ‘exit’ and ‘voice’, which I used before, in this blog. The default is voice, deliberating when in conflict, trying to see and accept the other’s position, with the intention of jointly solving problems, in give and take, but with ‘exit’ as the last resort. Voice is Aristotelian, seeking balance of interest and dedication, exit is Nietzschean, in a break-out from compulsion.

How about power?  Earlier, I used the distinction between positive power, in broadening and facilitating choice for others, and negative power, in restricting or imposing choice. I would strive for the first and deny the second. Positive power is powered by both Levinas and Nietzsche.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

227. The cultural roots of ISIS success

 How can ISIS be so successful in its utter evil, attracting ever new young recruits to it?

Doubtless, the cause lies, in part, in frustration of young Muslims, also in developed Western countries, from poverty and discrimination, mobilized for indoctrination by fundamentalist Islamist zealots. But why are the latter successful in their indoctrination?

I think the deeper cause is twofold. First, the fact that in the loss of religion, secular, liberal, democratic, capitalist societies lack clear spiritual values that yield an inspiration transcending hedonistic values of consumption. ISIS competes with a stark, absolutist, transcendent, compelling, easily grasped imperative, with a clear split between the good and the bad; the faithful and the infidels. Second, ISIS offers the perspective of heroism and exuberance in risk and violence, where Nietzschean masters relish the rush of power over slaves. This combination of sense making in higher purpose and the rush of violence seems unbeatable. I expand a bit on both.

In a recent review in the New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff discussed a thesis by Michael Waltzer that in history secular revolutions have been followed by religious counter-revolutions.[i] Examples given by Walzer are Algeria, India, and Israel. Ignatieff concludes that the secularists ‘failed to create a powerful and convincing political culture that would offer what religious faith still offers …, i.e. a spiritual home.’ Salafist Islam in Algeria, Hindu fundamentalism in India, and biblical fundamentalism in Israel.

There are counterexamples, where secular revolutions did not engender fundamentalist religious counter-revolutions: France, America, Russia, and China come to mind. However, what they did offer was a secular transcendent ideology as an alternative to theistic religion: French civic virtue in ‘laicité’, American exceptionalism, and Russian and Chinese communism. Also non-theistic ideology can yield a sense of transcendence, which is religious in the sense of offering connection to something higher than the self.

Why, then, do some young people turn away from Western societies, lured by ISIS? Has the inspirational value of Western societies been eroded? By what? I suspect that it lies in the excrescence of neo-liberal market ideology, supported by economic theory that claims to be value-free. But that is precisely the problem: loss of values other than hedonism, efficiency and economic growth. It does carry the value of liberty, but mostly in the negative sense of freedom from interference, which turns into a license to exploit other people and nature, for those who gather financial and positional power. There is a lack of the positive freedom of access to resources, justice and competencies, which has been eroded in ‘reforms’ for the sake of markets. That hurts the lesser educated, the old and weak, and outsiders who are discriminated, and lacks a spirit of transcendence.  

Second, the lure of heroic violence and subjugation has been nourished, I think, by a hotbed of thought fed by Nietzsche’s rejection of the ‘slave mentality’ of Christian compassion and his celebration of the ‘will to power’. In the wake of that, a shift has been going on from ethics to aesthetics, where the self or life is to be constructed as a work of art (Foucault, Onfray), stepping out of the symbolic order, in the ecstatic joy of ‘real’ life (Lacan). Some of the texts (e.g. in Onfray’s ‘sculpting he self’) are redolent of fascism.

I have been struggling with that in this blog. On the one hand I have been advocating a Levinassian philosophy of the other, and on the other hand I have tried to carve out space for a flourishing life for the creative individual. I have tried to show that they are not antithetical, that regard for the other is a source of a flourishing life. I have arrived at an ethic of reasonableness, of discourse between diverse views, with notions of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, and ‘debatable ethics’. It is a modest view of ‘imperfection on the move’.

Is this enticing, inspirational, transcendent enough to appeal to the human spirit that cries out for the vertical transcendence of theistic religion? I proposed a transcendence that is immanent, within life, and  horizontal, from people to people, and is enticing in furthering a flourishing life in the best use of one’s talents, to contribute to the hereafter of what one leaves behind at death. Is this enough? Is it strong enough to resist current evil? 

I think that it could be, in the Nietzschean ethic of power in the form of transcendence, transformation, reaching for the sublime even while knowing that it will never be quite achieved. That can be exhilarating. It avoids the atavistic regression to power in the form of violence that is found in ISIS.     

[i] Michael Ignatieff, ‘The religious specter haunting revolution’, The New York Review of Books, June 4, 2015.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

226. A basis for independence

An old debate on basic income is being revived, in Europe. In item 154 of this blog I discussed the arguments and uncertainties involved, and I will not repeat them here. The arguments are both social and economic. Here I want to add a ‘deeper’, philosophical argument.

In different ways, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Onfray strove to liberate the individual from the hold of social systems. Unleashing will to power, Nietzsche proposed. Getting away from ‘das Man’, Heidegger said. ‘Creating one’s life as a work of art’, Foucault proposed. Sculpt yourself, Onfray proposed  Deconstructing the established order, Derrida said. Stepping out into ‘jouissance’ of reality outside the symbolic order, Lacan urged..

In the preceding item I offered entrepreneurship as an opening for rebellion, in creative destruction, as an element of capitalism. But there are limitations to this. I mentioned that corporate capitalism tries to muscle out genuine entrepreneurship. But also, not all people have the guts and the stomach for it. And is the breathless momentum of creative destruction to be maintained continually? Is there no need for stability next or in addition to change? I will later dedicate a series of items to that question.

A basic income provides a basis for independence and personal agency. It is  an unconditional cash benefit for all people above a certain age, regardless of further income or capital. It frees recipients of social benefits from the ‘poverty trap’: the fact that any additional earned income is taxed for 100% (surrendering the benefit when finding work). The scheme may seem off the wall to many readers, and unrealistically expensive, requiring an unacceptable rise of taxes. That is not necessarily the case, but I will not argue that here (see item 154).

In the present context the point is that a basic income strengthens the power of a worker with respect to his/her employer, since in case of injustice or mistreatment he/she can exit and fall back on the basic income. It improves the worker’s bargaining position by offering a basis for independence.

One might argue that this is a double-edged sword, since it also makes it easier for employers to fire employees, easing the qualms about sending someone into unemployment. But there seem to be few such qualms anyway, and presently unemployment benefits already take away any qualms that may be there.

Basic income also facilitates entrepreneurship as an escape, since it provides the funds to tide over the difficult period of setting up an enterprise, without income from work, and difficulties in obtaining funds from banks or investors before one has developed a demonstrably viable prototype of a new product or service.

It enables exit as an artist, or to provide unpaid or low-paid social support that is no longer offered in public health.

Another economic point that I did not mention before is the following. After digitalization of music, books and film, it has become hard for their makers to appropriate the returns from them as income. As more activities become digital, his phenomenon will spread. To maintain the production of such things the makers need another source of income. Basic income may become inevitable for that reason as well.

To deepen the philosophical argument, I go back here to the tension between ethics and justice discussed in item 224. A basic income yields more scope for a Levinassian ethic of dedication to the humanity, the ‘face’ of the other, with less pressure for exploitation and rivalry, while it is also an item of justice, in its universal application to all, as an unconditional benefit.

As an element of justice it has also been justified as a ‘social dividend’, a return on the various forms of capital that have accumulated, as a shared heritage, over many generations, at the cost of much blood and toil. Think of the rule of law, democracy, culture, science, technology, and physical infrastructure of roads, railways, etc. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on their achievements as if those were entirely their own, while in fact they have built their success on leveraging this joint heritage from which others also deserve a return.          

Friday, November 6, 2015

225. Rebellious capitalism

In opposition to Levinas, who demanded surrender and awe with respect to the other person, Lacan, and followers Zizek and Badiou, focus on how others can hurt, constrain and gag the self.[i] They seek to break out from the repressive dictates of convention, claiming space for rebelliousness and authenticity, and acts of defiance. Such striving for escape from the institutionalized order is also to be found in Foucault and in Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of such order.  

Zizek claims that the ‘postmodern valorization of diversity, glorification of contingency, flexibility, hybridity, and flux mirrors the logic of capitalism, which thrives on the proliferation and dispersion of identities … (so that) postmodern politics replicates capitalism’s dislike of boundaries’.[ii]

Ruti quite rightly notes that ‘neo-liberalism … permits the heterodoxy, rebelliousness’[iii] that Zizek seeks. Indeed, as recognized by the economist Joseph Schumpeter, entrepreneurship wreaks ‘creative destruction’ of the existing order. The economist Friedrich von Hayek, considered to be a godfather of neo-liberalism, called competition a ‘discovery process’, and claimed that the prime virtue of markets is that they give scope and opportunity for idiosyncratic ‘local knowledge’ in ways that central planning never could. Instead of being thankful to capitalism for offering this opportunity for rebelliousness, deviance, which they seek, Zizek and Badiou castigate capitalism for it. Capitalism has to be the evil force, no matter what. But it is communism that takes out the scope for rebellion.

Yet I also am deeply critical of the way capitalism has developed. I recently published a highly critical book on markets.[iv] They are having perverse effects. I go so far as to make the radical proposal that the utilitarian ethic that underlies present economic science should be replaced by a virtue ethic, in a variation upon Aristotelian virtue ethics.

What now? Where is the good and where the bad of capitalism and markets? Schumpeter distinguished between conduct of corporations and that of independent, new entrepreneurs, coming from outside, and predicted that in the development of capitalism the latter would be replaced by the former. Here I adopt and develop that idea.

In my scientific and advisory work on innovation I ran into this contrast. One can distinguish between incremental innovation, with improvements on what exists, and the creative destruction of radical innovation. The latter entails what economists call radical uncertainty, as opposed to calculable risk. Under radical uncertainty one does not know what may happen. Economics as the science of rational choice cannot deal with such incalculable uncertainty which therefore is an extraneous, embarrassing phenomenon that is best ignored.

Radical innovation is not in the interest of established, large corporations, since it creatively destroys the economic value of their current investments. In many ways, large firms try to halt or slow down the creative destruction contrived by outsiders. For politics, the uncertainty of radical innovation also is an embarrassment, with eight out of ten projects not achieving their professed goal. Funding that is seen as largely funding failure. But it is in fact warranted, since the successes are worth the failures, and failures are a source of learning. However, this is difficult to sell in a society that has become pathologically averse to risk.

So, an unholy alliance arises between politics and large business, where corporations can exercise their lobbies, in funding incremental innovation in large firms. As a result, the obstacles are increased for radical innovation by the rebels, the outsiders.

Also, large-scale, concentrated business yields the excesses of unjustifiable remuneration, tax evasion, hiving off risks unto society, and the mutual embrace in what earlier in this blog I called ‘system tragedy’.

Also, the shared avoidance of risk has yielded a pre-occupation with efficiency rather than quality and innovation, and an orientation towards detailed forms of control that are suffocating professional work and innovation.[v]

So, the compulsion and suffocation by the established order, constraining deviance and rebellion, derive from  a degenerate form of capitalism.  

[i] See Mari Ruti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics’, Bloomsbury.
[ii] The same, p. 90.
[iii] The same, p. 133.
[iv] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, paperback 2015, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Edward Elgar.
[v] I have been conceptually developing and promoting leaner, more trust-based forms of ‘horizontal control’. See item75 in this blog. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

224. Ethics and justice

As discussed in item 62 of this blog, Levinas made a sharp distinction between his ethics of the face of the individual, and public justice that transcends individuals. Is this distinction viable? To quote Mari Ruti: ‘Ethics and justice are irreconcilable but also indissociable’.[i]  

There are good reasons for the distinction. Justice, in laws, should be regardless of interest or position, to avoid class justice, cronyism, corruption, … Laws are intentionally impersonal, without regard to the Levinassian face.

In this blog, I criticized the strict universality of Kantian duty ethics, but there is a kernel of truth in it. What is just should not depend on individual interests and emotions. However, while I would apply that to laws, I do not apply it to ethics.[ii]

While Levinas sharply distinguished between ethics and justice, he did not separate them. Voices from the ethic of the other should continue to inject their spirit in the formation and application of systems of justice. To repeat a quote from Levinas: ‘One sometimes hears them in the cries that rise from the folds of politics that, independently from official institutions, defend “human rights”; sometimes in the songs of poets; sometimes simply in the press and in the public spaces of liberal states ...’[iii] The ethics of the individual forms the conscience of collective justice.

There is a need to continually mediate between ethics and justice, to fritter ethically at the boundaries of the law. This is nothing unusual: judges do it all the time, trying to apply the law not only to the letter but also to the spirit behind it, taking into account personal conditions.  

For an illustration of the problem, see the present efforts to accommodate the hosts of refugees streaming into Europe. From an ethics of compassion, laws and rules are bent, but this imposes great stress on feelings of justice among the population, where people have to allow precedence to refugees in the allocation of housing and jobs.

So, what more can be said about how are ethics and justice are related? As elsewhere in this blog, I take a dynamic approach: how do they affect each other in their development? For this I have two proposals.

First, I go back to my discussion of meaning, earlier in this blog, where I picked up the distinction between sense and reference, taken from the work of Frege, but with a twist (item 32). As is customary, I took reference to be what a term or expression is intended to refer to (or the truth value of a proposition). Less customary, perhaps, I took sense as the way in which identity is identified, or truth established. Reference is public, outcome of intersubjective agreement. Sense is private, tapping from personal repertoires of associations collected along one’s life path. People individually construct what is to be intersubjectively agreed.

Could this serve as a model here? Could personal ethics similarly form, construct, reconstruct or break through public justice?

Second, to complement this, I go back to my stories about the ‘hermeneutic circle’ (item 36) and the ‘cycle of discovery’ (item 31). By applying existing general, publicly accepted, ideas in novel contexts, one detects their limitations or errors, and insights in novel opportunities from local practice, to arrive at experimental hybrids that may develop and consolidate in novel general ideas of wider scope and application.

In the present context: established normative ideas, principles of justice, taken as universal, are applied in new fields of society, new conditions, new cultures, to discover conduct that does not fit and yet somehow ‘works’ in the local context, raises empathy, and may yield new perspectives, in experimentation with hybrids, which may develop into a new, more widely shared moral universal. 

Here the distinction between normative and intentional universals (see item 222) appears. In applying norms as widely as possible, as one best knows how, the wider universality of intention opens up benefit of the doubt, detection of the limits or errors of norms, and new possibilities, which may yield hybrids, in experimentation, possibly yielding consolidation in new, perhaps more widely shared norms.                

[i] Mari Ruti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics, Bloomsbury, p. 35.
[ii] Elsewhere in this blog I adopted an Aristotelian ethics of multiple virtues. How does that connect with Levinassian ethics? Perhaps the virtue of compassion is the prime virtue, instead of the virtue of reason,
[iii] In: Immanuel Levinas, 1991,  Among us, essays on the thinking of the other.

Monday, October 26, 2015

223. Levinas and Lacan

I contrasted Levinas, with his philosophy of the other, and Nietzsche, with his ‘will to power’, in item 63 of this blog, and in a book[i]. Like many others, I judged that Levinas went too far in his unconditional surrender to the other, being his/her ‘hostage’. Where does that leave the subject, as an agent, as responsible for its own flourishing? On the other hand, Nietzsche went overboard in his superagency, will to power, will to overcome resistance, in the urge of a flourishing life.

I countered Nietzsche with the argument that in order to flourish the self needs opposition from the other, in order to learn, to be rid of its prejudices and myopia, to achieve the highest form of freedom, including freedom from the prison of the self. And then, I countered Levinas with the argument that if I merit opposition from the other for my flourishing, then the other similarly deserves opposition from me.    

Here, enlightened by a book by Mari Rutti[ii], I consider the contrast between Levinas and Lacan (with Zizek as a follower). Both Levinas and Lacan engage in ‘philosophy of the other’, recognizing that the self is socially constituted, but morally Lacan goes in the opposite direction. Instead of surrendering to the other he wants to fight free from its imposition, and to grasp freedom outside the strictures imposed by the public symbolic order.

In the opposition between Levinas and Lacan I find myself in a position similar to that between Levinas and Nietzsche. One the one hand I find myself ethically attracted to Levinas’ commitment to the other in his/her vulnerability and suffering. On the other hand I sympathise with Nietzsche and Lacan, in their defence of agency and the flourishing of life against the terrorizing or suffocating imposition of conformance and sacrifice to the other. Again I argue that one needs to ‘let the other in’, and to some extent indeed yield to the other (in ‘passivity’, as Levinas put it), but not only for ethical reasons but also for cognitive and spiritual reasons, as a source of a flourishing life, and then also offer the other to let me in to contribute to his/her flourishing (and hence also be ‘active’).

There is nothing unusual about this. This is normal interaction: the alternation of reception and offer, active and passive.  

Here as elsewhere, like an Aristotelian I try to find a good ‘middle’ between extremes, in the same way that one needs to find a good middle between recklessness and courage, altruism and self-interest, trust and control, openness and secretiveness, aggressiveness and defensiveness, and so on. Where the proper middle is depends on circumstances. In some conditions an extreme may be called for.

This is connected with my stance concerning universals, discussed in the preceding item in this blog. They are seldom strict, and how they apply varies. Finding the proper degree, balance, depending on conditions, is a task for ‘practical wisdom’. We may be inspired by virtuosi in it, as role models. Albert Schweizer, Gandhi, Mandela, perhaps.

Is this too loose, allowing for too many escapes or loopholes? Are there no universals that apply across all contexts, unconditionally? In the preceding item I pleaded for moral universals with the widest possible scope, short of unconditional strictness. To see the limits of some principle is not to deny its force.

At this point I mobilize the distinction I made, in the preceding item, between normative and intentional universals. One needs to draw normative boundaries beyond which one is not prepared to go, as long as there are no convincing countervailing arguments or warrants. But under the wider umbrella of intentional universality one can go beyond that, to understand motives, perhaps sympathize with them, even while acting against them. In a later item I will argue how such understanding of transgression may next yield a starting point for debating and considering a shift of moral universals.

If this is on the level of individuals among each other, how about the relation between individual and collective, between ethics and the public system of justice? That is the subject for the following item. 

[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2012, Beyond humanism: The flourishing of life, self and other, Palgrave MacMillan.
[ii] Mari Rutti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics, Bloomsbury.