Beyond the prejudice of philosophy

Translation of published article on Zinweb.
Having finished my master of philosophy at one of the Dutch universities, I often find myself confronted with prejudices against philosophy, both in the world and the job market. The discussion about closing one of the faculties of philosophy in the Netherlands (Earsmus University Rotterdam) has brought them all to the surface once more. Here is my response.
Continue reading “Beyond the prejudice of philosophy”

Meeting the Other – Question of one who is Home-less

Living in large metropolitan cities is not just a difference in size, compared to villages and towns that are still to be found at the countryside. There are more people.
More people means more houses, more suffering, more joy, more making love, more fighting over jobs, more food, more sewers. (It also means more books, more theatres, more pie, more languages, more colours, more… life.)
We Take (you) away from Here
But is also means more alienation. For me it means also the need to get away, to be alone. Which is sometimes easier in a city full of strangers, than in a forest in which you’re the only person alive. (Something to do with being confronted with oneself, hearing one’s own thoughts, etc. See also this article on why people prefer electric shocks over being alone with their own thoughts…)
But even in cities, one is being confronted with oneself, precisely because of the alteriority of the people one is surrounded with. There are moments, where the Other Faces you. And this leaves one utterly vulnerable, and destitute of understanding. There is one group of people who knows this very well, and who are making a living out of it. By facing the people around them, approaching them, and consciously crossing the border of anonymity, they touch their victim and mirror their estrangement from themselves. And they know this is not a pleasant situation for the one who is running away from all authenticity that could perhaps be. So they offer an easy resolution. One is able to buy off this uneasiness. In return, one gets nothing. One is left alone, or in an extreme case, one ends up with some newspaper.
Of course, I talk about a specific subgroup of homeless people.
One encountered me this morning. Of course, he didn’t know I wasn’t impressed by him sitting in a wheelchair. He didn’t know, that the sense “can I ask you something”, has a very specific meaning for a philosopher. I thought about his question, asking me whether he could ask me something. I was tempted. I like questions, I find them an important means to come to a new understanding of the world and the life we live. But this was already a question he was asking me. Why postpone the asking of a question, by positing the question whether it is okay to ask something.
There are of course reasons why one can postpone or prolong human interaction. Most probable reason in this case is the bonding of us, two people bound by interaction. By choosing to giving him permission to ask me something, I already had to acknowledge him as a person, as a fellow other, one whose face I couldn’t say ‘no’ to. This pre-question is some kind of trick, to make me feel connected and to have to answer the following question positively. Or negatively, but that would mean that I would break off the human connection just established.
Of course, I wasn’t sure what he was going to ask. He could ask for directions, he could ask to marry me, he could ask me for a smile. (He could have just read Blanchot, and ask “I’m afraid; would you accompany me for a moment?” (The Step Not Beyond, p.60)) But being primed by being asked this question hundreds of times before, knowing the humiliation that follows – for I would not only refuse to give money, I will also have taken up his time by allowing him to connect to me – I said: “No.”
Of course, I had already stopped walking at this point, pondering over the meaning of the pre-question and the best response. While looking at him – for where else to look, but to the one who questions? My “no” made him respond: “But you don’t even know what I was going to ask, you Sau.” ‘Sau’ being a very rude thing to say, something like ‘bitch’, although literally related to the word ‘sour’.
I walked on. Happy I had limited my human connection to a minimum, for this offensive word to not touch me (at least, not too much). And sad, because another instance, another possibility of meeting the other, was forever lost.
ps. It’s good to note that asking for money, is not a question but a request. Just saying.

On Being, a Philosopher

Some time ago I’ve started calling myself ‘philosopher’. Something which is ridiculous, as any nobody could do so. (And unfortunately there are too many nobodies who do just that…) But most people wouldn’t think about labeling themselves ‘philosopher’, perhaps because it is a disgraceful, unproductive profession without economic benefits. Which is true.

But so far, my experience has been rather positive. I’ve not been attacked because of it. I’ve been called one of the French persuasion – which I forgive them, with a slight smile. But no-one has asked me as to why I define myself as such. In the beginning I used to half-jokingly say that being a philosopher is not a protected trade, but I stopped doing that when even that didn’t provoke a response.
Perhaps people are truly uninterested. Which could be a good sign if it would be taken as a general matter, but people do seem to be interested to define my gender, work experience and acquaintance. People are interested in what defines me as being different, and less valuable.
Perhaps it’s only me but when I read a newspaper article written by ‘philosopher’ Eva Jacobs (Volkskrant, 06/02/2014) which is devoid of a single philosophical argument, I get angry. Not because people are not allowed to have ridiculous (feminist) opinions – I live in a country where these are allowed, unfortunately – but because nobody seems to care that the word ‘philosopher’ still means something other than having finished some kind of university education in philosophical subjects. I get angry, and to no avail.
I profess a philosophy that is beyond descriptive practices, that dares to say ‘no’, that chooses the impossible. And I will stand by that, or die trying.

Reflecting on Radical Emission Reduction Conference 2013

This week the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research organised a conference on the need for ‘Radical Emission Reduction’. I was given ten minutes to talk about a philosopher’s take on ‘radical change’ and the consequences for the manner in which we frame responsibility, for both individuals as institutions – in front of around two hundred (social) scientists, mitigation specialists, lawyers and journalists.

One of the main points of the conference was that a rise of the world’s temperature is inevitable if we continue down the path we’re on today. And whether this rise will be 2 degree Celsius or 4 or 1.5, we need to avoid this in order to avoid radical situations in which the world as we know will have disappeared.
My own take on this is that change, when it is not just a mere illusion or modification of the same, in other words that ‘radical’ change consists of a break of the present epistemic order. Which goes beyond discourse analysis and paradigm shifts. And that so-called solutions that bring the climate debate into the present-day (economic) paradigm that is responsible for the problem, are not going to solve the problem.
One reaction to my short presentation called it ‘provocative’, another wanted to state that we had come a long way from the 1960s French structuralism and that he felt the need to save philosophy’s name by distancing (himself/philosophy?) from my views. In general my calling for the need to commit to the impossible did stir the minds, and some form of academic discussion ensued. (Which is more than I can say for other presentations, but then I’m not a scientist so I tried to keep myself away from commenting too much on empirical datasets and its analysis.)
I don’t think any philosophy that needs saving, should be saved. Philosophy is an act. Anything that calls itself philosophy and does not move away from present understanding of reality, cannot be called a lover of wisdom. And when asked to answer the question as to what they consider ‘radical’, silence is their only answer.
Which is fine. It only shows that the on-the-side conclusion of the conference, that the real change in behaviour and thought was to be found in students and in small community networks. We cannot look towards our corrupt governmental system for guidance. In the closing remarks of a Member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, this was once again painfully visible. She said that “it is not enough to be right”, meaning to say that the support of the people is needed to create different policies in government. But what she actually acknowledged with this remark, is how MPs think they know they are right and therewith closing off any possibility for deliberation, for a combined search for solutions and a framing of the problem.
Another interesting ‘attack’ came from Andrew Simms in his closing remark, which I do want to go into a little bit as it was quite interesting. He started out by repeating some of my thoughts and making them ridiculous. After which he tried to explain how his own idea of a new green economy is much more sane. He gave the example of a small Swiss village in which a new paradigm was once born, at which time it was ridiculised by contemporary thinkers, but how that neo-liberalism has become the leading paradigm of today. (Get the irony here?!) After which he ended by saying what he thought was necessary now – a verbatim account of my presentation but minus my language (for something can only be deemed reasonable when it can be said without words like ‘discourse’ and ‘impossible’).
Another interesting point about this conference was the precense of quite some young(er) people, who were oriented towards all this in a positive fashion. Bruno Latour was mentioned a couple of times in private conversations. As was the need to be okay with the paradox that two things can be true at the same time.
Most interesting perhaps was that many people picked up on the word ‘humble’. Larry Lohmann gave experienced this first-hand. It is counter productive to try to get people interested in climate change issues. Instead of showing them your wonderful solution, one needs to be willing to listen and see how the concerns of the other are related to what you are thinking about. You cannot do this by bringing your own superiority to the table – humbleness is what we need as we approach people that matter to us.
Another example in this regard was given by professor Wilks, who talked about a people in Belize, who had a very egalitarian society and when one wanted to get into office, one had to spend so much money one ended up poor. This is the only way to prevent the hunger for power that we witness today in many societies around the world.
It is strange how certain words are picked up on, whereas others are taken totally out of context. Perhaps my blunt statement that “I don’t belief in physical reality” when asked how to deal with the discrepancies between shifting conscience and physical truth, didn’t make it easier for people to hear the rest of the sentence. This is always a problem when philosophy is brought back to slogans, time limits that make it impossible to go through the whole argument.
Hopefully when the full article will be published coming spring, people will be able to object with regard to the content, and not focus so much on their problem with a framing that reminded them of French philosophy. (Although it is a funny thing when you realise people label you a french philosopher, unable to pronounce my name, and calling me by my first name even though we’ve never met before.)
The video of the presentation should be posted on Tyndall website someday in the future. For now, the conference website which also includes the programme and abstracts: http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/radical-emission-reduction-conference-10-11-december-2013-register-here

Presenting the Impossible

Imagine yourself in a conference hall full of scientists and policy makers. Imagine you are a young woman addressing the crowd and telling them that they (including myself) are a part of the problem. That the fact that they are even thinking about the problem, is keeping it alive and preventing change. And that if they truly want radical change, instead of mere modification, it is necessary to take their ego, their ideas, their prejudices out of the equation. That they need to long for the impossible.
And no, I’m not referring to Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, who will also give a lecture at the same conference. (Which I am looking forward to.) I’m talking about me presenting a paper on our shared responsibility towards achieving radical change in greenhouse emission reduction, using Einstein, Badiou, Derrida and Foucaultian perspectives.
Yes, it’s kind of scary, but also a lot of fun. Hopefully.
http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/radical-emission-reduction-conference

Auto-Didacticus Philosophicus

Four years ago I decided to take matters (my life, my thoughts, my world?) in my own hand. Frustrated with unanswered questions, irrational belief and the fear of averages, I found my way to the library at Haifa University, Israel. A library in which half of the books were in languages I could not read. But in which the philosophy bookshelves held some real treasures.
Four years later, I still don’t read Arabic, Russian or Hebrew. But I continue drawing on the books I read in that period. My own crash course in philosophy proved very fruitful. And especially as I read them without any prejudices (mind you, I didn’t even know the difference between analytic and continental philosophy), without any greater scheme in mind… I could form my own thoughts. I could decide who to befriend and who to shun.
In the year that followed this first visit to that library I continued this self-education. In February 2010 this free-floating was brought to a stop, when I started a master in (political) philosophy, when teachers started to fill my time with required reading list. But that first year and the books I choose – why did I pick these specific books? – continue to be the basis of all my present thought.
I started with reading Michel Foucault‘s “The Order of Things”. Still my favourite philosophical musing, perhaps also because it was the first book I ever read to make me realise there are things that are bigger than anything I can ever understand. My notes from that time are priceless to me. My trying to figure out these strange words like ‘episteme’ remind me of this struggle that brought me back to life at a time I was really in one of the worst places I’ve ever been. Needless to say, the notion of ‘episteme’ is so dear to me, that it’s pretty much the topic of my PhD now…
I continued reading all of Nietzsche, and a biography on Nietzsche by Walter Kaufman. Again, I don’t know why. But it appealed to me, as it still does. It has become part of me, this notion of the death of the church, the need to face what one is despite human structures… “One should only speak where one cannot remain silent, and only speak of what one has conquered—the rest is all chatter, “literature,” bad breeding.” (Opening lines of “Human, all too human”)
And I read Kojéve‘s Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Karl Jasper‘s “Origin and Goal of History”. Martin Buber‘s “I and Thou”.
Although I still linger within these texts, there is also much more. I’ve made more friends I could have ever realised, Sartre, Heidegger and Arendt amongst others. Lately Badiou and Benjamin should be added to the list. But I am still young, and it’s never too late to make new friends…
Fortunately, now at the European Graduate School, I’m having the opportunity to float within texts while finding my own voice…  And to meet living thinking friends, from all over the world…

Problems of Existentialism Post-WWII

There was a time I was absolutely convinced: existentialism is the answer. Nowadays I’m not so sure anymore. Not because it is not an answer to many problems, because it is. But I happen to wonder whether it is a sufficient answer. Existentialism post-WWII, is it doomed to fail?

Existentialism became popular after the Second World War particularly in France under the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre. For a good book as introduction into his thought: read ‘Letter on Humanism‘ by Heidegger to Sartre, or of course Sartre’s short but enlightening ‘Existentialism is a Humanism‘. Although understanding its philosophical perspective can take you a lifetime, when you grasp the ‘existence precedes essence’ part, you surely get an idea of what is going on.

When existence precedes essence, this means that unlike regular conceptions for instance of religious institutions, the essence of a human being, that what defines who he or she is and in more general terms also what it means to be human, is not pre-supposed, is not already knowable and defined before it comes into existence. Instead, existentialism claims that by coming into existence, by the way one presents him- or herself and chooses to act (existence), he becomes who he is (essence). Or, as Sartre puts it: “…man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.”

“…man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” ~ Sartre

It can easily be seen why this was attractive to a nation, to a world that was facing a crime that was impossible to grasp. The Shoah made it rather impossible to continue accepting moral theories that relied on the inherent goodness of mankind. People were searching for explanations: how could this have happened, and also: how could individual people participate towards executing that plan.

Easy Fix?

Many individuals who participated in executing or organizing the Shoah blamed the government. Legal systems were often at a loss, as individuals could only be tried under the laws of the country as they were during the act itself. So it is understandable people started looking for an explanation of human life and human actions that made it possible to blame individuals, irrespective of whether they (merely?) followed orders. If the actions of people are chosen and not predestined by their genes or by divine will, they become responsible for their own actions.

But there was another advantage. People who had no idea of what was happening in the camps, could feel relieved, they could not be blamed. And it also made it possible to at least partly blame Jewish leaders for participating in the grand scheme of the Shoah (see for instance Hannah Arendt). Existentialism was therefore an easy fix. Perhaps too easy.

Existentialism and Nazi Politics

But existentialism wasn’t invented only after the Second World War. Without any historical sources to back this up, I think it would be safe to say that existentialism even influenced Nazi politics. The Nietzschean Superman (Übermensch), although in that time greatly misconstrued (blame the sister, blame the existing paradigm, whatever), is essentially an existentialist view. The Übermensch is the individual who is not influenced by the order of society and is independently defining himself. The etymological relationship with the term “Untermensch” used by the Nazis to refer to the Jewish race, should not be overlooked.

Perhaps it can be said that existentialist thought also made it possible for Nazi politics to systematically degrade specific groups in society (Jews, Roma, gays, etc etc). The Nazis did not only claim a racial difference – which would be an essence before existence argument. No, they actively proclaimed that these specific groups had chosen their specific lives, they were responsible for their own actions and were therefore to be systematically eradicated. According to Hitler the Jews were behind all the moral and economical problems of Germany. This was not due to their race, but because of their actions. For a good analysis of the development of this attitude towards the Jewish people in Germany and Europe, read the first chapters in the excellent book by Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Popularity of Existentialism as Mauvaise Foi

We can conclude existentialism can both be used as an argument in favour of executing the Shoah and as a way to free oneself of blame after it had taken place. This is problematic. But existentialism isn’t merely a theory of individuality. To explain this, allow me one more educational diversion.

Sartre introduced the term ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi) to delineate behaviour of people who thought themselves to behave as free individuals, but instead are just fooling themselves and are very much part of the social sphere and are not defining themselves freely, but are defining who they are based on their role in society. In ‘Being and Nothingness‘ he gives a classic example is of the waiter, who can wait on tables in different ways. Either he does this freely, he acts because he wants to act the way he does and this happens to be seen by others as actions of a waiter – the waiting makes him a waiter.

Or, he acts as he thinks is required of him as he is a waiter – even if he freely chooses to be a waiter – his actions are therefore not free but based on what he thinks is expected of him – he is therefore in mauvaise foi.

Although for existentialists like me it is impossible to judge others (and this is also a problem, but I’ll leave the problem of relativism for another time), people who in post-WWII France claim their innocence on existentialist grounds were probably in bad faith. For, weren’t they just as free to find out about the truth of what happened to their Jewish neighbours when they were deported or threatened to be deported? Existentialism post-WWII is perhaps impossible to keep up.

But even if it was not done in bad faith, it is a problem when existentialism can be used to silence a lack of moral persistence.

Nobyeni is a freelance philosopher and author

Read more short stories by @nobyeni at her website.
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Philosophy's Curse

It leaves you breathless on a cloudy afternoon
It silences you whenever you’re supposed to talk
It distances you from everything sane and sound
Philosophy’s curse
Of course there are times when you can relate
When you nihilistically existentially circumspect
When red is just an ordinary colour – no Wittgenstein
Until it hits you – philosophy’s curse
It creates endless shudders and abysses alike
It focusses on what was previously obviously general
It is like American spell check on the British Isles
Philosophy’s curse
Let us revolt and deem unnecessary this ‘thinking’ business
Let us fall prey to the economic and practical alike
Let us be slaves of the system that cannot be undone
But then, there is no way out – philosophy’s curse
It leaves us no other option, to think or to perish
It makes us skeptical about our own existence – and humble
It takes us beyond the so-called freedom of choice, popular mauvaise foi
Philosophy’s blessing
 
[With thanks to Gabriel Yoran and Kat Mandeville]

Experience Philosophy By Letting Go

Attempting to read Deleuze, I hit upon this quote, of someone trying to explain why one should read Deleuze: “…do not bother trying to comprehend or understand the text.  A desire for that level of control will only hinder your ability to experience it, use it, think it, and become it.” (Christopher Higgs)
From experience, I can say I totally agree. There are philosophies I have absorbed over the years, that have become an inalienable part of me. Which is frightening sometimes. It is as if you’re walking around with invisible bracelets saying “What would Heidegger do?” (Or: What would Martin do? Or Michel? Alain? Immanuel? After getting acquainted with someone over a long period of time, sometimes you reach that point that you are on a first name basis…)
When I was first starting to ‘study’ Heidegger, I was warned by my teacher (Chris Bremmers) that once I got it, it would be impossible to stop looking at the world as a phenomenologist. He was right. This is nothing exceptional, as everyone if formed by his or her education and/or bringing-up. But to notice it changing in a relatively short period of time, is an extra-ordinary experience which I recommend everyone. Even if it is just to realise the depth as to the level of influence a paradigm has on your own thinking.
But reaching this ‘change’ is not an easy accomplishment. It involves something that is beyond any type of comprehension. Studying can be seen as repeating the same thought / word / concept over and over again until it is fixed to memory. This never worked for me. Or studying can be a thinking about why something is as it is, why a cat pretty much always falls to the floor feet down, wrapping your mind about it until you figure it out. This works for me sometimes, but most of the times leaves me utterly confused, as I ask the why-question too often with things that cannot be understood. (Why is there gravity?!)
Studying for me is about taking a leap into the world of another person or group, be it a cultural world (learning another language works like this, for me) or a thought-system (like phenomenology). It is about letting go of preconceptions, one’s ‘own’ knowledge or experiences. It is about diving in, head-last. It is about breathing the words, getting it tattooed in you skin. It is a poetic process. It is very personal. And it is extremely universal.
Perhaps this is why it is frustrating to hear others ask questions about Heidegger or other philosophers who are part of me, that are focussed on understanding with their mind. They continue asking ‘why’, when it is clear that some things are incredible merely for the fact that they ‘are’ and can be thought as such. This is an experience these kind of people do not get. They continue to actively link the ‘new’ to their own ‘old’. Therefore they never transcend the limits of their own paradigm, they might stretch their limits, but they will not uncover new territories.
Still, as I dive into a new world, the deep blue frightens me. Which is good, as it means that my own ocean is valuable to me.

Talking Philosophy – Reflecting on Reflecting

Hangout Meeting II

Talking about philosophy can be a wonderful experience. But: it does matter with whom.

The joy of doing it with friends, who are right there beside you, struggling to get a grip on topics that go beyond them. Struggling, but not thinking they are in anyway inferior because they have not written the thought first, not thinking they should merely understand something passively and then repeat it as if it would give it some meaning by doing so.

No, instead, friends who actively consume philosophy, question the questions as they come, not taking anything for granted. The grounding of the ground is un-grounded. Time is timeless. The un-earthening of every drop of sand. Everything is considered. And everything is allowed, although it is also quite obvious what is not allowed. Perhaps we are very Western, perhaps we are much too educated to be really finding what we’re looking for. But sharing a paradigm, in which one can say the word and be understood in the devastation of the utter lost-ness of where one is. That is what it means to talk philosophy with friends. To me, at least 🙂

Goodnight…