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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

222. Forms of universals

The theme of universals versus individuals has been pervasive in this blog (see items 16, 17, 118, 129, 135, 129, 184, and 197). Here I will not repeat all that, though I will give the shortest possible summary of it, and I will next expand on it a bit.

I rejected Platonic absolute ideas, universal and eternal, existing beyond the world of variety and change that we experience.

I argued that universals, in claims of general truth or value, are needed for the sake of generalization from experience, and for interaction between people, but in a more modest form, seldom strictly universal, and subject to shifts, which arise, in particular, from debate from variety of experience, in variety of contexts.

I elaborated on this along the lines of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ (36): a general idea becomes concrete, focused, or individualized, in specific contexts, where it is combined with other ideas, in a unique constellation of meaning, which can shift the general idea, to be abstracted from the context, ready to be applied anew elsewhere (37). That is in line with my story of the ‘cycle of discovery’ (31, 35).

All this is in line with my pragmatist stance: ideas are applied until they run into problems or novel opportunities, and then they shift. Truth is never final and unalterable, but it is to be supported by arguments, in ‘warranted assertibility’. In morality, norms also are not final and unalterable but part of ‘debatable ethics’.    

To proceed, what forms of universals might there be? I propose a distinction between attributive, normative and intentional universals.

First attributive universals. They are of the kind: humans are featherless bipeds (the classic one), thinking animals, mortal, use language, strive to manifest themselves (‘conatus essendi’), have an urge to survive, and an urge to be a legitimate member of a social group. Another example of a universal: all chairs have legs.

Here, I propose, the universal is often strict, applying to all singulars. All humans are indeed mortal. However, animals are mortal as well. Apes also are featherless bipeds. Some animals appear to come close to thinking and using language (whales, dolphins, some birds perhaps). The universal is not always strict, allows for exceptions. Psychopaths have no moral sense. There are chairs without legs. And when all individuals do share a feature, they generally don’t have it in an identical way, in a shared essence. As Mari Ruti noted: ‘universalizing is not intrinsically homogenizing’.[i] Also, things may be grouped together without sharing one single feature, as according to Wittgenstein’s famous notion of ‘family resemblance’. That would apply, for example, to chairs.

Is truth a universal? If truth is indeed to be taken as warranted assertibility, as I propose, then the warrant can be more or less strong, and there may be disagreement about what is an acceptable warrant .

Next, normative universals. Those are seldom strict. Earlier I contested the universality of Kant’s categorical imperative. It is bad to lie, or to kill, but not always. There are things that I would want for myself but would not want to impose upon others, and vice versa. One may tolerate rules that one  would not accept for oneself, and that is indeed the essence of democracy. Yet it is difficult to accept the savage butchery and slavery perpetrated by ISIS under any conditions.

To craft an ethic strong enough to resist excesses of inhumanity such as the holocaust, Levinas went overboard in a strictly universal ethic of unconditional surrender to the ‘face of the other’ (see item 61). That ethics appears to take out the self.

Finally, I propose intentional universals. They are intentions towards others in action and understanding. They are seldom strictly universal, and perhaps should never be, as a matter of normative universality. Perhaps one should always remain open to doubt and prepared to discuss one’s own intentions and those of others. For example, consider Levinas’ unconditional awe and surrender to the other. Would one, should one extend that also to one’s torturer?

Here the difference between normative and intentional universality kicks in. We may morally condemn someone while yet achieving some empathy, or at least understanding of the underlying impulse, for even the most extreme behaviour. Condemn and fight the barbarism of ISIS while seeing how it arises, for some at least, from an sincere motive of transcendence, no matter how illusory we might consider it to be.

All this is part, I think, of Aristotelian practical wisdom.

[i] Mari Ruti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics, Bloomsbury, p. 68.

Monday, October 19, 2015

221. A counter-narrative for Europe?

Voices are calling for a counter-narrative for Europe, to counter anti-European narratives from Putin and ISIS. That is not helpful. The good things in Europe are diminished by narratives, and what is bad cannot be repaired by narratives.

‘Narrative’ is a flattering term for bullshit. It entails a distortion of truth to hide weaknesses and to burnish an image.

A core European value, adopted and adapted from the Enlightenment, is to seek truth, not hide it, to use arguments, not narratives, and Europe should stick to that value. Leave the narratives to those who have something to hide or distort.

Elsewhere in this blog (items 20, 21, 197) I resisted ideas of the (radical) Enlightenment of a purely rational and fully autonomous individual. I adopted the view that rationality and free will are limited and that individuals are socially constituted. Truths and values should not be taken as absolute, i.e. strictly universal and eternal. They are context-dependent and historically and culturally contingent. However, I still plead for universals in a more modest form, and open to shifts, and for recognition that for all its sociality the individual is constituted as unique, with some scope for autonomy. I will return to these issues in later items in this blog.    

What Europe should retain, in the spirit if not the letter of the Enlightenment, is the dedication to being reasonable, seeking truth even if we cannot fully attain it, as warranted assertibility, seeking arguments, not lies, in support of a position.

European nations should have more self-confidence concerning their virtues of liberal democracy. The flood of refugees to Europe is evidence enough. They vote with their feet. Facts count for more than narratives.

ISIS enthrals some people by offering the lure of transcendence, with narratives to promote a missionary zeal for an absolute, uncompromising ideal, for the chosen, the true believers, to be rewarded in heaven. Europe managed to develop away from that, growing up, accepting the imperfection of humanity, modesty concerning absolutes, and appreciating diversity.

All this does not mean that all is well with Europe. First, Xenophobia is rising along with populist nationalistic sentiments. Second, there is a blatant democratic deficit in the EU, with a virtually powerless European parliament, overwhelmed by the councils of ministers of finance and government leaders from the member states. Third, there is sense in outside criticism that with its neo-liberal capitalism, consumerism and hedonism Europe has lost spiritual, non-material values. Is that what our freedom has produced?

These problems should be faced and not glossed over with narratives.

Earlier (in item 205) I ascribed xenophobia to ‘parochial altruism’: altruism within the group at the price of suspicion and discrimination regarding outsiders. Europe should attempt to widen the sense of the group to include people from other cultures. The absorption of refugees, if successful, will bolster this.  

Europe should stick to the striving to be more inclusive, extending the group, in a pluralism of values that can be mutually criticised and debated, and tolerated when remaining different, within limits, in what I called debatable ethics.

The democratic deficit in Europe also does not call for narrative but for political action. The only way forward that I can see is a further progress of political integration, with a strong parliament and leaders elected from parties at the European level. A fully federal Europe is currently not feasible politically, in view of the revival of nationalism. But if there is no progress in that direction Europe cannot maintain its claim of the moral superiority of liberal democracy.

I have no idea how to reverse the present condition, pervasive but thankfully not universal, of self-absorbed, self-indulgent, materialistic, shallow, mindless consumerism with its thirst for hype, excitement, narcissistic self-expression, and emotion as the central values. Cosmetic narratives, dishing this up as freedom, in the stupefaction of advertising, will not help.    

Monday, October 12, 2015

220. Hosting the refugees

Attempts to host the host of refugees are rightly based on ideals of hospitality and solidarity. But they should also be realistic and effective. How to think about that?

To analyse this I use the multiple causality of Aristotle (see item 96 of this blog). I used that before, in an analysis of historical explanation (item 100, on the emergence of the Dutch East India company), morality (item 175) and power (item 213).

It works as follows. An artisan (efficient cause) makes furniture from wood (material cause), according to a certain skill and technology of design and production (formal cause), with the goal of earning and income, plus, perhaps, the satisfaction of artisanal work and independence as an entrepreneur (final cause), under certain enabling and constraining conditions of market, regulation, …  (conditional cause), possibly following a certain model (exemplary cause).

Aristotle used  that causality in his attempt at natural science, but there it does not work. In particular, there is no final causality. Objects moving in space do not tend towards some end. That causality ended up on the dung heap of intellectual history, and was replaced by a more mechanistic and singular causality of natural forces (with attempts to arrive at a ‘unified theory’). The irony next is that economists emulated such causality of elementary forces (of supply and demand), while in economy and society Aristotle’s multiple causality, including final causality, fits admirably.

The inclination to consider only some single factor is a (formal) cause of much failure. Here one looks, for example, only at the goal, or who is to do something, neglecting means, methods and circumstances, and the inspiration of examples of success or failure.

In an analysis of a labour market, for example, one should consider what workers it is about (efficient cause), what motivates them, with next to wage also intrinsic value of work (final cause), what means are needed, such as tools or machinery (material cause), what knowledge and skill (formal cause), under what enabling and constraining conditions, such as child care, mobility, legal regulations, unions, job security, possible discrimination, … (conditional cause), and what models one might follow: Anglo-Saxon, ‘Rhineland’, or Scandinavian (exemplary cause).

How would it work for dealing with the flood of refugees? We should look at both sides of the relationship: the host country and the refugee.

For the host country it would work as follows. The efficient cause: in helping refugees, who is to do what: national government, municipalities, public agencies, schools, medical institutions, churches, Red Cross, volunteers, ..? The final cause (intention) of help presumably is the ideal of charitability, solidarity, hospitality. The material cause: financial means, available capacity for housing, food, medical care, schooling, .. The formal cause: how to deal with the logistics, organization, security, racial, religious, and cultural differences? The conditional cause: acceptance and rejection by the population, international relations, geo-political conditions. The exemplary cause: successful approaches earlier, or elsewhere (as the flood from Nazi Germany, Eastern Germany, former Yugo-Slavia, Hungary, …. )
For the refugee it would work out as follows. Who is the refugee; man, woman, child, family? What are their needs, aims and expectations: security, housing, work, income, support, …? What are their means: money, clothes, health, … What are their intellectual, social and cultural skills, knowledge, languages, religion, ability and willingness to integrate? What are the conditions for them: resources of housing etc. that are necessarily limited, cultural stance of the host country, degree of xenophobia, economic conditions, ….. Are there examples of successful integration of family or acquaintances?

All factors count. Germany at first focused on charitability and then ran into problems with the other factors. Refugees had expectations that could not be matched by limited resources available in the host country, in the short time available to act. The weighing and matching of factors requires debate, with involvement of those who are affected, or have relevant knowledge and experience. Both sides are part of each other’s conditional cause.  

Trust becomes fragile when expectations are disappointed. Therefore one should not create too high expectations, being open about what one can and cannot offer, taking all factors into account.  

Monday, October 5, 2015

219. Voice, twitter and barking

 ‘Voice’ means that trouble in a relationship is voiced, with the intent of solving it, in collaboration, in contrast with ‘exit’, where one engages in battle, or walks out, ending the relationship. Voice is crucial for trust, as I argued in this blog.

The notions of voice and exit derive from Albert Hirschman. In a paper at a recent conference on the philosophy of management[i], the question was raised what effects social media have on voice. Here I tap from that paper.

Voice should exercise restraint. Too much voice creates noise. Nothing is perfect and one should not complain about trivia. Voice should also be patient, allowing time for a response and for efforts for improvement.

In the past this took care of itself, given the transaction costs of setting up and conducting communication. Now, with social media, the costs and the threshold are low. It is easy to voice a complaint on Facebook or Twitter. At no cost it can be exercised impulsively and indiscriminately. There is no pause for reflection and restraint. This increases the volume and decreases  the quality of voice.

In Twitter, the limit of 144 signs blocks nuance.

Twitter also lacks the non-linguistic hints of gesture, eye contact, and demeanour that support interpretation, disambiguation and understanding, on the part of both the receiver and the sender. There is no direct feedback in the communication to restrain, modify or supplement the message.   

It is often also impatient, demanding instant response. Also, the target has to act before protest proliferates and escalates, in re-tweets, repeats, response, and additions.

But there is more. It seems that in this mode voice, if it can still be called that, is exercised not with a serious attempt at improvement, but as a means of attracting attention, seeking self-confirmation, self-expression, narcissism, venting emotions. A streak of hysteria enters.

In twitter, voice becomes barking. There may not even be  a clearly identifiable addressee, in a general, broadly cast, weakly specified protest, generalized resentment, thrown at the world at large. The smallest stirring in the undergrowth sets off one dog, and a host of other dogs furiously follow, salivating, trying to out-bark each other, not wanting to seem an underdog.

In consumer society, the sacrosanct consumer is exhorted to voice complaint, in interviews, surveys and opinion polls, and now on internet, not just as a right but almost as a duty to prevail.   

If there is an addressee of the barking, what is she/he to do, when an avalanche of diatribe erupts? To cope with it, computers are used, with standard responses, and intelligent software sifting through the bile for serious and fruitful bits of voice.

What can be done? There is software that builds in a pause for reflection on internet, or a prod to re-read one’s message, before sending, or that allows a target to respond before the tweet is broadcast. Will that help, or is it like trying to hush a barking dog? Can the dogs be muzzled without violating freedom of expression? Is there no exit?

[i] Isaac Waisberg & Ingrid Erickson, ‘Who is listening? The impact of technology on voice’, Philosophy of Management Conference, Oxford, 9-12 July, 2015.