Sunday, June 26, 2016


268 Heidegger, Foucault, Wittgenstein, and how to rebel


Here I resume a brief series on rebellion

In his ‘Being and time’, Heidegger proposed the view, taken also throughout this blog, that the self is not a bystander with pre-formed ideas, looking out on the world, but is ‘thrown into the world’, being constituted by it. As a result, one is ‘fallen’ (‘Verfallen’, in German), caught, in the grips of ‘das Man’, the collective, or the ‘One’ in the sense of ‘that is how ONE behaves’. The problem then is how to get free from that grip, to achieve authenticity.

This is very close, I propose, to Foucault’s idea that we are caught in ‘regimes of truth’. One could, I think, capture ‘das Man’ as well as the ‘regime of truth’ in the notion of an ‘institutional system’, with its rules, roles, positions and doctrine. How, then to escape from it?


Both Heidegger and Foucault recognized that we need an institutional system as an enabling system, from which the self forms itself. And we need it to take things for granted, in order to function, not to have to wrangle agreement at every step (e.g. in a language community, division of labour, trade, traffic, in a political system, … ). System power is not only negative, constraining choice, but also positive, in providing options for choice. The issue, according to Foucault, is to accept, to value and to exert, positive power, while maintaining the ability of resisting or counteracting the negative power of suppression.


But how to both use the system to function and deviate from it to develop authenticity? Foucault said that we should ‘shape our life as a work of art’. Yes, but how is that done?


One can find or form a smaller community of more like-minded people, but that yields its own constraints and in any case one is still part of a larger system. 


Heidegger said that awareness of the horizon of death, in ‘being unto death’ impels us to commit to a choice to form an individual self, as part of a whole of life, in ‘disclosing oneself’ (‘Entschlossenheid’). The horizon compels us to choose or else waste the potential of life. Fine, but the question still is: how to both employ and escape the system?


Here, I employ Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘language game’. As I did in a discussion of the handling of the Greek financial crisis, in item 206 of this blog. If an institutional system entails one or more language games, what room is there within these rules or for changing the rules?

Earlier, in item 170, I discussed the room left in discourse from the fact that meanings of words are not delimited strictly. Public meanings allow for private connotations. Meanings are open, subject to shift, in individual language use, as is most pronounced in poetry.

Rules of the game leave room for individual technique and style. Take Muhammad Ali: he obeyed the rules of boxing but developed his own style to ‘float like a butterfly and sting like bee’.  Some authenticity is possible within the rules.

Still, from inside the game it is difficult to change the rules, and as an outsider one would be simply ignored, not taken seriously. However, by being an expert, superb player, one can use the reputation to make controversial, deviant statements. Muhammad Ali did that, to criticise racism and discrimination.

Another example, in economics, is Kenneth Arrow. As a reputed scholar he earned attention for a fundamental insight that challenged economic doctrine.[i]

However, even then it is difficult to rebel and change the rules radically from inside. Arrow showed that an important part of economics as we knew it does not work, but not how a new economics would work.


Apart from pressure from others in the system to conform, it is difficult, intellectually and morally, for oneself to retain and enact independence of thought, to change the system. In fighting the system one may destroy one’s reputation built on it.     


To radically change the rules, in creative destruction, one has to accept ostracism, being an outcast. One has to struggle in the desert to get one’s deserts. To have novelty adopted one needs to show that ‘it works’, to those, often a novel generation, that are open to it. Often recognition does not arrive in ‘being unto death’ but after it. The commitment to leave something behind, beyond death, according to the best of one’s talents, should carry its own reward.


An alternative, which I reject but is increasingly adopted even by scholars, is to leave the arena of rational debate, fire up the rhetoric and mobilize the populace, appealing to emotions and ‘gut feeling’ to win the day.     

[i] In his theorem of the ‘impossibility of majority voting’: the impossibility to aggregate individual preferences into a well-behaved collective preference ordering. 

Friday, June 24, 2016


267 Plea for a different EU


I felt that in this blog I could not ignore Brexit. So here is an intermezzo on it.


Where does Brexit come from, and the more widespread resentment against the EU? What lesson is there to be learned? Where should the EU now go?


The EU has concentrated on the enlargement of the market. It was caught in a neo-liberal ideology of enhancing markets. There are good economic arguments for free trade, but politically it has had adverse effects that now appear to be draconic.

Next to economic advantages, the shift of production to low-wage countries leads to more transport of products over larger distances. That is bad for the environment but does not appear as a cost to firms and hence does not play a role in their calculations.


What is worse, in globalisation corporations can exert pressure on countries, under the threat of shifting production elsewhere, to offer or permit advantages, in pressures on wages, labour conditions, more flexible and insecure work, tax evasion, tolerance of pollution, lower cost of energy, deceit, monopolies (e.g. in pharmaceuticals), fiddling regulations (e.g. in emission control), and other misconduct.


The market has always been seen as a source of freedom and resilience against totalitarian regimes. Now the operation of markets is experienced as a totalitarianism of markets that swamp and cover everything. It is in reaction to that, I propose, that we now see a surge of resentment and rebellion of the lower educated that have been left behind in rising inequality of income, wealth and employment, both on the political left (Bernie Sanders, Corbyn) and the political right (Trump, LePen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, …). And, I think, in present tenacious strikes in Belgium and France. And in Brexit and in a drive to other exits that may now be expected.


The main point now is that in this dissatisfaction and insecurity, sentiments of fear of foreigners and nationalism are mobilised, and form a dark cloud of political menace. Purely economic arguments have become suspect, a ploy of the elite that benefits from economic injustice.


To avoid political disaster, politics must harness itself to limit abuse of power in globalisation by corporations.


That can only be achieved in international cooperation, as in the EU. Withdrawal within national borders will not achieve it. Perhaps joint mobilisation can offer some counter to the blaze of anti-EU sentiments, in the present, spreading revolt, where one sees the EU as a motor of globalisation, with surrender to its adverse effects, instead of curtailing them. Here lies an opportunity for rehabilitation. More a EU for the people, and less only for the market.   


At several places in this blog, I discussed the notion of ‘system tragedy’ where people are locked in to a system with perverse effects, even against their will. The EU must gather the strength to reform the system entangled in the present configuration of capitalism. If it does not, revolutionary movements will break it up.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016


266. Rebellion

Previously in this blog, I discussed the problem of how to escape from the tangle of social systems. Here I present two cases, illustrations of it.

In a recent speech[i], Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister of finance, narrated his conflict with the committee of EU finance ministers concerning the Greek debt. They wanted to compel Greece to repay the full debt, with severe measures of austerity. Varoufakis argued that this would be self-defeating, since ongoing austerity would demolish the economic basis for repaying the debt. The only viable approach, which would repay at least some of the debt, would be to cancel part of it.

Informally, everyone agreed that he was right, but EU leaders could not sell it to their electorates, and it would damage the northern EU banks that had extended the debt. There was no way that Varoufakis could get his way.[ii]  

To the point for the present discussion, he was told by an insider that he could only survive in the negotiations if he gave in to the austerity game. Do not go against the stream as a matter of principle, but tag along and see what you can achieve in the margins, was the advice. If he stuck to his guns, he would be dropped, forced out. And that is what he chose.

Another case is from my own experience. As a scholar of innovation and member of the main think tank for the Dutch government[iii], I headed a team of researchers to produce an advisory report on innovation policy. Our advice went against established policy of planning innovation for selected strong industries. That, we argued, would have a conservative effect of profiting and maintaining established interests and raising entry barriers for newcomers. At best, it would yield improvement of established technologies and their application rather than yielding genuine novelty.

This criticism was not well received. I had previously been welcome at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, participating in seminars and advisory committees, but now, I heard from contacts within the ministry, I was a persona non grata, no longer welcome.

The policy I criticised was ideal from the following perspectives. First, it reduced the risk of spending public money on risky innovation that did not deliver, which would get the minister in trouble with parliament, for ‘wasting public funds’, while it could still be called innovation in some form, thus satisfying the hype of innovation. Second, it satisfied pressures from established (large) business not to engage in ‘creative destruction’ of established positions and investments. My advice was spoiling a game that in a truce between government, a risk-averse parliament and established business was too good to be spoiled.

I appealed to high-placed colleague professors: the then president of the Academy of Sciences, and the then director of the Science Foundation that distributed funds for research. They were both members of the state committee for innovation policy. In private, they conceded that I was right, that my arguments were valid. However, they were facing the choice: go along with my opposition and risk being side-tracked (like me), or going along with the momentum of the policy in force, to protect the interests of the institutions they stood for, which depended on public funding.

I could not blame them. But it illustrates the deep ‘problem of Foucault’ that I discussed earlier in this blog.    


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihVcrnFag1s
[ii] A little later, the IMF went along with the logic of cancelling part of the debt. As an independent agency, they did not need to cater to the prejudices and emotions of an electorate.
[iii] The WRR: Scientific Council for Government Policy.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


265. What is identity?


Previously in this blog (items 8 and 9) I discussed personal identity, cultural identity, and the relation between the two. I also proposed that identity has multiple elements that can be in conflict with each other, and that identity is subject to development, and can fall apart or grow stronger.


A good old friend of mine is developing a form of Alzheimer disease. Is he losing his identity? Eventually he will. That is the tragedy of Alzheimer' s. Now he can no longer be coherent in telling a story or conducting an argument. He can’t find the words, and connections are lost. But he is still clearly the person he was, with his demeanour, gestures, quips, laughter, expression, etc., in other words in what is called his ‘habitus’. Such habitus, style of exercising and expressing identity, is part of identity.   


Here I want to look in more detail at what constitutes identity. Is identity what we do, how we act? No: that is how identity manifests itself. Identity drives conduct, but is also formed by it, in response from the environment.

One needs the means to express identity and enact it, and from that form it, such as, among other things: a home, work, family, friends, access to education, freedom of movement and expression. In detaining refugees in centres, we rob them of the means to express and develop identity.  

How does it work, this formation of identity in exercising it? Earlier in this blog (item 35) I discussed the notion of ‘neural Darwinism’: mental, neural patterns of connection may compete with each other, and those are reinforced that yield perceived success. What is perceived as success is also part of identity.


What, then, are the things that constitute identity: drive conduct and develop from it? Is it fundamental drives or needs? The most fundamental needs are shared by all people, while identity should individuate people. But there are differences between people in what they want and prefer. I would say that individual preferences are an important part of identity.


But apart from preferences there are also distinctive ways in which people exercise and execute them. I think that here we arrive at ‘character’. That consists of dispositions to act, such as courage, commitment, imagination, enterprise, and ability to suffer and overcome disappointments.


Now, the exercise and development of  identity, and of character, depend on interaction between self and other, and between self and social systems. For this, there are relational features of character, such as empathy, self-control, preparedness to listen, ability to understand, willingness to share and to give and take, but also the strength to stand up for oneself.


Much of what we do is automatic, in routine conduct, about which we usually do not consciously deliberate (see item 5 on free will). This yields what I would call ‘behavioural inertia’. This is also how the brain works: it does not tell us what to do, but what not to do, when to step out of a routine.


And this is a good thing. Life would be unlivable if one had to consciously deliberate on everything we do, every step of the way. It is by surrendering to routine, e.g. in driving a car, that we can reflect on other things, such as what we are going to do where we are driving to. In emergencies, however, such as a traffic accident in the making, we need to be catapulted from routine into consciousness to take appropriate action.


In social inertia we routinely go along with what people usually do and say, in a variety of circumstances, or what one is expected to do, without much reflection. Now if identity entails individuation, not being identical with others, an important part of identity is to act against this inertia, to step out of social routines. The challenge is how to balance the drive of authenticity with the need to conform, going along with what is normal or socially required.


Here we are back at the ‘Foucault problem’ that I discussed before in this blog (in items 50, 212, 258): how to exercise autonomy while being assimilated in, and assimilating into oneself, social systems as ‘regimes of truth’? How to be an effective rebel?

Sunday, June 5, 2016


264. Useful, warranted, or workable?

In this blog I have adopted the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’. The warrant is to be based on arguments and facts. In this blog I have also adopted pragmatist philosophy, found in American philosophers Peirce, James, and Dewey, but also in Nietzsche (see item 149) and Wittgenstein. Some people[i] claim that pragmatism demands that we no longer claim or ask whether someone or something is ‘right’ but only whether it is useful. That is not my view.

As I argued in item 246 of this blog, it is still useful and warranted to claim one is right, compared to some rival claim, in the sense that one has better arguments. Without any such claim, what is the point of debate?  To stand behind one’s arguments is to claim one is right.

Note that there is a pragmatist argument here. If usefulness is the criterion of warrant and we can argue that debate is useful and that for debate claims of being right is useful, then claims of being right are warranted.  

While some (American) pragmatists indeed claim that something is true if it useful, what I make of it is the wider criterion that ‘it works’. To be useful something must work, but if it works it need not be useful. What does ‘it works’ mean? Dutch has the expression ‘het klopt’. That expresses exactly what I have in mind, but is difficult to translate. It means something like ‘it fits’, ‘hangs together’, ‘stands up’, ‘works’.

In science, something is taken to be true if it ‘works’ in the sense that its implications accord with logic and experience. For warranted assertibility I propose that an assertion should work either in that sense or in the wider sense that it has implications for action that are effective, reach some goal, are indeed useful in that sense, or for which there are arguments also in a moral sense. In the latter, warranted assertibility becomes what I called ‘debatable ethics’. In sum, I render ‘warranted’ as ‘workable’, which is wider than ‘useful’. 

I recall that the philosopher Hegel said, in German, that ‘Das Vernunftige ist das Wirkliche, und das Wirkliche ist das Vernunftige’. ‘Vernunftig’ means rational, or reasonable. ‘Wirklich’ means real or actual, but literally it says ‘workable’. So perhaps what I am saying in this piece is attributable to Hegel.[ii]      

‘Working’ has several dimensions: logical, empirical, practical, moral, validity, …. Thus warrant is relative to which of these aspects one is talking about. These, in turn, depend on perspective, context, purpose.

The question then is what or who determines whether ‘it works’, or what criteria apply. Here I arrive again at Foucault’s view that it is determined by established,  institutionalized ‘regimes of truth’.

In philosophy, one such regime is analytic philosophy, and another is ‘continental’ or ‘non-analytic’ philosophy (see item 158 of this blog).[iii] They have different views on what are interesting and legitimate assumptions and questions.

In economics, mainstream, neo-classical economics gives priority to formal rigour, in the use of economics. Heterodox economics attaches more importance to plausibility and realism of assumptions.

If in one such system one disagrees and does not conform, one needs to accept the price of ostracism, go in a hiding of some sort, or opt out, or switch to a different system.

Genuine novelty does not fit, offers new meaning, ‘does not work’, lacks recognized warrantand hence is not accepted, until it is shown to ‘work’ in novel ways and gathers cognitive, social and political clout the break the old frame. It is ‘untimely’, as Nietzsche called it.

Are there assertions, questions or expressions where it does not make sense to ask for a warrant? Consider poetry. Is it not the point of poetry to escape from warrant, to say something unwarranted? Even there one may debate, as among literary critics, whether or not, and in what way, a poem ‘works’, in terms of rhythm, sound, tone, rhyme or alliteration, metaphor, originality, ….

Consider illocutionary speech acts, such as ‘go read that book’. One could ask ‘why, explain’.  And consider expressions of feeling, in the following exchange: ‘I love you’, ‘that is not love’, ‘why not?’, ….. There is a saying that there can be no dispute about taste, but why not? One can explain the liking of something by comparing it to something else that is evidently likeable. But at some point argumentation must stop, as I argued before (in item 173 of this blog). At some point the debate will end in ‘that is just how I feel’, or ‘that is just how it is done’[iv].   


[i] e.g. Richard Rorty in his Essays on Heidegger and others.
[ii] I have not checked with the literature on Hegel whether this has perhaps already been said and is warranted.  
[iii] ‘Continental’ is a misnomer, since American pragmatist philosophy is also non-analytic.
[iv] As argued by Wittgenstein.