Last winter I found an email in my mailbox with an invitation, out of the blue, to give two lectures in Southern Germany. Near the Bodensee, in a village called Weingarten, which translates as Vineyard. IMG_20180731_132347273The organisor of a yearly philosophical summer week, Dr. Hälbig, had found my German article of a few years ago on Emanuel Swedenborg. If I wanted to come and speak on him and on Spinoza. The theme of the week was the other side of the Enlightenment. Of course I said yes, especially after a friendly phonecall with Herr Hälbig. Not all of my readers know that I feel verbally more at home in German than in English, as I spent quite some time in with relatives and friends in the country. Still it was a challenge to see if I could also speak as freely for a group of interested people who would not all be versed in philosophy. This past week I was there. Close to the Swiss border, in this very hot summer, in a continental climate.

I had the opportunity to stay there three days, and also hear several German colleagues whom I didn’t know before. Especially two of them, full professors, surprised me the by their truly German style of doing philosophy – which reminded me of my student days at Leiden university, where some of my teachers also knew that style. One of them spoke on Leibniz’s metaphysics, and doing so took the audience on a dizzying ride through metaphysical arguments from the Middle Ages to Immanuel Kant, discussing the problem of freedom. When I also saw an essay he recently published on freedom I was stunned by its exclusively German list of references. Even to discuss positive and negative freedom he didn’t need Isaiah Berlin, but other, German authors. In English language philosophy the opposite is of course also the case, where many great continental thinkers who were mentioned here would not even be known by name.

The other was a Kierkegaard specialist, who took us through the dark moors of protestant existentialist experience of sin, aptly summarized by an elderly lady who attended as ‘Sündensumpf’. While listening my mind kept wandering back to my student days, where for the last time I had been immersed so deeply in North-European and German ways of seeing life through philosophy. And to the very specifically German style of doing philosophy, from which I obviously had removed myself so far that for my bio I had just indicated that I taught philosophy at my university, while all the other speakers had listed, in the right order, their Studies, their PhD, their Habilitation (second research exam after the PhD, neccesary to become a full professor). The exams and titles and positions which I had forgotten to mention, perhaps also because somewhere along the way I must have lost interest in the game of academic hierarchy.

What struck me also, upon reflecting, is that there is no such thing as continental philosophy. French philosophy is just as different from German philosophy as Anglo-saxon philosophy is. And I thought further about the debate on the existence of a specifically African philosophy on which I had been reading over the past years. In this debate, the participants often struggle with the claim of European philosophers that their ideas are universal, whereas those of philosophers of other continents were supposed to be local and bound to their specific cultures. Here, in Weingarten, among the vineyards,img_20180802_072942504.jpg that suddenly appeared as a non-issue. For everything here was so German, including the appropriation of Kant, who was mentioned in every second sentence, so to speak, and always with the full realization of the very specific historical and cultural context of his philosophy. No, things were even more localized, for, as Germans do – always discussing the differences between their constituent peoples at dinner or at the bar (in this case the closest two – the Frankish and the Swabians), there was no escaping the grounded and situated nature of the philosophy being done. It kind of relieved me. After all we are all in the same boat: Anglo-saxons, French, Swabians, Tamils, Han-Chinese, and Igbos – we all come from our own fields with different animals, foods and fruits, and our own histories of power struggles over them, and the identities we developed while tending to them. And from these very local circumstances somehow in all cases thoughts emerge that may attract others from other fields and languages, making them interlocal, although never universal or global in asimple manner. In this case the fields grew grapes. IMG_20180730_171723862

My lectures went well, years of teaching philosophy to non-philosophy students had done their work. The participants liked it that I discussed texts with them and took them along the very personal and existential questions about modernity I have had ever since my early teenage years. And I was relieved all the German idiom I had gathered was still there and helped me to get into a real dialogue with very nice, interested and interesting people, some professional philosophers, others from other professional backgrounds. It was a good experience, to visit my neighbors in their homeland, and sit and philosophize in the vineyard.

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covershitinggeogreason One month late, here is my post about the conference on Shifting the Geographies of Reason June 19-22 in Dakar. It has to open with the incredible poster, designed by former CPA president Jane Anna Gordon, featuring the magnificent photos by Djibril Drame. That already says a lot about this conference, which was co-organized by the Carribean Philosophical Association and La Société Sénégalaise de la Philosophie. It expresses that art is an integral element of the reflection that philosophy practices. An approach which reminded us, participants of this conference, of many thinkers, such as Senghor and Césaire, who would integrate poetry into their work to say things that purely academic language can not. Poetry was also a part of this conference, when at its closing session Rozena Maart read her impressive poem which seemed to reflect something of the deeper layers of experience which made this meeting possible.

It was a meeting in the true sense of the word, of scholars with roots in the Carribean and in African countries, as well as other world citizens who adhere to the fact that we are all together in what I discussed at another conference to be the global postcolony. More than at other philosophical conferences many presenters were young, and many were female, and this made for a unique possibility to hear the research and reflection of those who are so often not heard in the usual format of scholarly gatherings, where the system of keynotes by established professors overrepresents the older, and the male colleagues, and pushes the others into the workshop rooms.

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Some of the CPA & SOSEPHI organizers together with the hard working student assistants – credits to the unknown photographer.

This conference had the workshop rooms as its heart – young and older were to be heard there, and the general gatherings provided the frame where members of the two organizing societies, who so enthusiastically had img_20180618_123008150-e1531594532302.jpgjoined forces, met.

 

For me it was a pleasant return to the Université Cheikh Anta Diop, which since last December I had come to know as a most hospitable place of intellectual encounter – with delicious meals by the most friendly catering service, eager students attending many of the presentations, colleagues who already have become friends, and of course, the natural beauty of the most Western tip of the African continent. It is impossible to give a short rendering of all that I learned through these encounters, buIMG_20180620_091239530t may it suffice to say that I

heard papers being presented on all the subjects I would like to hear at a conference – papers which disregarded the restrictive boundaries of disciplinarity, and which, informed by high quality historical, sociological, anthropological, and of course philosophical work, centered the experiences and events that brought us, humans, where we are in together – the postcolony, and centered intercultural and decolonial approaches as well that work toward us moving beyond this existential situation – with all the necessary truthfulness and open-mindedness to not leave anything out. To me, this is what philosophy should be. And places such as UCAD are where true philosophy therefore happens today.

 

 

 

 

 

It was Stephan Strasser’s Phenomenology of Feeling that first introduced me, towards the end of the 1990s, to Max Scheler’s (1874-1928) work on values and feeling. Over the years I returned to Scheler’s ‘non-formal’ ethics of values now and then, but only read it in-depth when in 2015 I got the chance to teach a course on value ethics for second year bachelor students. Several of them were struck with the ‘freshness’ of Scheler’s approach, and continued reading him after the course was over. This freshness is, of course, the result of history: IMG_20180506_132109233his early death, his non-Husserlian take on phenomenology, and the effects of nazism on philosophy made his work largely forgotten for a long time. There has been no ongoing reception of Scheler as there is of Heidegger or Husserl. This leaves his work open for fresh interpretations, and this gives the reader the feeling of newness.

When in the early 70ties some of Scheler’s work (like Strasser’s) was translated and published in the U.S., the chances for its renewed reception had grown. What made the U.S. especially a good place for the reception of Scheler’s value ethics is the fact that it shows interesting overlappings (as well as some debate) with the thought of his older contemporary William James (1878-1910). Both philosophers have researched the human person in this world, as an active and thinking, valuing and feeling living being – instead of as primarily a doubting rational mind looking for epistemic certainty – as much of modern philosophy would have it. Also they both were interested in the entirety of human experience, without its non-empirical aspects filtered out. They both included the spiritual nature of the human being (next to his sensuous nature), and saw this human being as enmeshed in the world, instead of over against it. Because one thinker came to be labeled a phenomenologist, the other a pragmatist, and philosophy is often focused on schools more than questions, their connectedness was disregarded for a long time.

Now that is beginning to change. Edward Hackett has just published his book on persons and values, which combines thoughts of Scheler and James to produce an original view on the ontology of intuiting values. The book is not an introduction to either of these thinkers, but introduces those elements in their work that affect metaphysical issues in ethics – as its complete title indicates:  Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology. Explorations in Moral Metaphysics. Its idea to construct a pragmatic phenomenology is very natural to me, as my own work on both thinkers went in the same direction. James and Scheler complement each other, Hackett argues, and they do. His book is not a work in ‘history of philosophy’ however, but contains a constructive argument for a new approach in value philosophy that works with and builds from both thinkers. Hackett’s work is philosophy in action, and a well-argued variety of it. The new approach he introduces is participatory realism, which aims to show how “persons must participate within intentional feeling acts for values to acquire an ontological reality.” (Hackett 2018, xx)

Hackett not only introduces us to his new approach but also shows its effectiveness in tackling issues that have plagued moral metaphysics in the analytic tradition from G.E. Moore up to the present day. With determination he moves beyond the so-called analytic-continental divide, constructing a discourse which enables to translate concepts from phenomenology and analytic value theory in a common terminology. This is not an easy task, and I guess readers from both traditions will object to some of the wording still. Overcoming the divide is necessary however, if we want to get to the questions James and Scheler asked, as both wrote before this scholastic division had become the norm in philosophy. It is necessary to open up to analytical moral theory to get to the realism which was important to both thinkers – post-war continental philosophy having followed more or less post-realist, postmodern, hermeneutical and deconstructive roads. It is necessary to open up to continental philosophy as well, to overcome the dualistic understanding of humanity that often dominates analytical philosophy – and capture the fullness of lived experience, the living, feeling, acting human being – encompassing its hard to rationalize spiritual experiences too. For it is in these experiences that, according to James and Scheler, moral valuation happens.

Hackett explains in his preface what the combination of these approaches means to him philosophically:

“For me, realism is about the process to which subjects emotively intuit values and realize those values into action without dividing up the subject’s lived-experience from the very world in which values acquire their intersubjective reality.” (Hackett 2018, xxiii)

When I started reading Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology (being a European reader educated in continental philosophy from Nietzsche to Derrida), Hackett’s emphasis on realism was at first unexpected. I have been trained not to attach too much value (sic) to questions that amount to ‘what is its reality?’ Insofar as I call myself a pragmatist, I am one of the deconstructive kind, satisfied with concepts doing their work even when we can question their meaning and reference continuously – even when they deconstruct themselves all the time while doing their work. Even before reading Hackett’s book, however, Scheler made me question this approach. The pre-WW II philosopher speaks so convinced about the objective structure of value orderings, and about how values – even when they are ‘discovered’IMG_20180506_123414075 in a certain time and culture, have absolute validity, and he ties it all up with his theory of feeling strata, that one has to temporarily forget ones deconstructive impulses to follow him in his thoughts. He is, at least in his non-formal ethics of values, a ‘Catholic’ philosopher, who intuits an absolute and ‘objective’ substructure to all there is to be felt, thought and researched by human beings. The abberrant use of the idea of objectivity (over against modern thought) in Catholic thinking might be one of the reasons for Hackett to couple Scheler with James, next to his explicitated aim to ‘correct’ Scheler’s too spiritual, disembodied, and (in Hackett’s words) non-natural understanding of human feeling. It is at this point that I got the impulse to divert from the road taken by Hackett, and to continue to give Scheler the benefit of the doubt concerning his understanding of the human person.

It can be argued, namely, that the strata of value feeling in Scheler are not separate levels at all, but analytically distinguished moments, aspects, of undivided lived experience. That would mean that the spiritual is not separate from the vital or the sensible at all (as Hackett seems to take it (cf. Hackett 2018, 131), but that indicating it just means highlighting a different aspect of our valuing, experiencing encounter with the world. In such a reading spirituality is not to be understood as non-natural either (as Hackett does, cf. Hackett 2018, xxi). If we stick to the ancient distinction between the natural and the non-natural (or even the supernatural), it will be hard to give equal value to science and religion/spirituality, and to make them enter into a necessary dialogue. When we want to seriously understand reality in a manner that includes the spiritual, we should, to my view, understand us to live in what one could call ‘natural spirit’ or ‘spirited nature’. Participatory realism comes close to such a view, as I understand it. The road there is different, however, from my post-deconstructivist one. From different sides, however, Hackett and I agree that philosophy – in order to understand valuation adequately, should become pragmatically phenomenological – which means ontological. It should, to use Hackett’s words, understand the being-of-an-act of intentional feeling.

This post is my reading report of:

J. Edward Hackett, Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology. Explorations in Moral Metaphysics, 2018. Wilmington/Malaga: Vernon Press.

Already it is the fifth anniversary of this blog! Let me celebrate the much-valued exchange with you – readers and commenters – to repost this one – to celebrate memories and celebrations as such!

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StrasserfotoToday’s title is a line I once read from Derrida. And it might have been another motto for this blog. It expresses my conviction that not only the future is open, as we may change it through our thoughts, our attitude and our actions. The past is just as well. Believing that the past is a fixed body, like a carved stone, is a mistake. I have discussed here the ideological aspects of history. Writing history is sculpting a future. It is important how we do it.

I am not proposing that we treat history as those officials in George Orwell’s novel 1984 did, changing it, erasing events and people that could endanger the powers that be. What is important about that story is that it made us aware that we can do that. That history is vulnerable over against the manipulations of power politics. Once we are aware of…

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This past wednesday the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where I work, hosted the second book presentation of Theological Ethics and Moral Value Phenomena, the book I co-edited with Patrick Nullens and Steven van den Heuvel (both working at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Louvain). The first one was last December in Louvain, where Antwerp philosopher Guy Vanheeswijck gave his response to the book. This time two philosophers from Leiden University, Rico Sneller and Timo Slootweg, got the floor. Early 2013 the idea of this book project was born. We, that is the members of the research group theological ethics (of which I am a member, yes – although I never studied theology) felt the need to present something of our approach in ethics towards a wider audience. In our regular

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Rico Sneller giving his response to the book

discussions it had become clear that many of us worked within a phenomenological framework, which is not the most common approach in ethics. This should be taken in a very wide sense – for some this means having expertise in the work of Charles Taylor, others read almost forgotten French personalists, while for others again phenomenology just means a general approach to follow their own questions in, for instance, health care ethics. In my case the project provided me with an opportunity to delve into the ways in which William James, Max Scheler and Charles Taylor helped me to understand the relationships between religious experience and moral orientations in the value realm. I also wrote a second chapter where I clarified – with texts by Levinas and Derrida – aspects of Simone Weils criticism of an ethics of rights.

And now I heard how my peers read this work – which is a weird experience. Sitting and listening for almost an hour something struck me: how often I heard references to Immanuel Kant. Obviously my esteemed readers held the view that I was in a continuous philosophical conversation with Kant! The only name that didn’t appear in any of the titles of the chapters. With some surprise I looked into this mirror that was held up before me, but couldn’t deny what was said. After the session I tried to think back how Kant the thinker of ethics had come into my life, while chatting over drinks with another visitor from Leiden university. I told her that when I was doing the work for my PhD, on Spinoza, I did something to avoid becoming a narrow-minded expert: the last two hours of the work day I allowed myself to read philosophers that intrigued me, but whose work had no direct relationship to the project. I chose Arendt, Levinas and Strasser – and the lastmentioned again led me to Scheler, whose Non-formal Ethics of Values I only read a few years ago. For two of the eight years between the very beginning of my Spinoza project and the day of the defense of my thesis, I got funded to work at the University of Amsterdam, in the section practical philosophy. It was there, during the monthly meetings of the section members, that I got my first real introduction to ethics as a field. Although I had had some classes in ethics during my studies, philosophy in Leiden had an overall focus on epistemological questions, and now I realized I didn’t have a real understanding of the structure of ethical questioning.

There Kant got in. I read his Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, and, as I had managed to get inside his epistemological ideas during my studies, through reading this short work I finally could enter into the idea of ethics – the autonomous ethics perceived by Immanuel Kant. All the other present day texts that were discussed in the practical philosophy section I could now break into by using the Kantian idea of ought as my tool. It was a discovery that impressed me. Finally Kant also gave me a tool (his distinction between theoretical and practical reason) to break through the difficulties I had making sense of seeming inconsistencies in Spinozas Theological-Political Treatise (which was the subject of my research). His words ended up in the preface of the book in which I finally published the results of my research. A long quotation. Ending with the bonum vacans sentence: Kant says that speculative reason should provide the foundations for practical reason, that doing so is a duty. For if he would leave this question, theory would be empty of the good, and fatalism would take hold of it. My very short and inadequate paraphrase this is. I felt Kant – the despair that modern scientism would lead to, not so much even an existential or moral despair – but the despair that anything to do with the good would be lost for philosophy, for thinking. That could not happen. All the thinkers I wrote about in this new book somehow felt this same anguish – Levinas, Derrida, Weil, Scheler, Taylor (James is a bit different in this, but I will leave that for another time). So that must have been what my readers had picked up. The question obviously has never lost its hold on me. Perhaps I should face it directly some time. And write about Kants Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals.

We might never know whether he really said it. But he might have. I see it thus: basically he thinks like a businessman – not politically. So if he said it, he must have meant to indicate an economic situation. A shithole country is one that cannot be lauded for its flourishing entrepreneurship. Those African countries (oh, and Haiti and El Salvador would be included) – in his eyes – are unable to produce anything worthwhile, so… In general I do not particularly follow what he said or didn’t say, I rather follow those people on the ground who actually try to reorganize and restructure their surroundings for the improvement of their (our) world.

Among the thinkers and entrepreneurs from African countries whom I follow, some admire him. They think he makes for a welcome change from those ‘civilized’ Western leaders who, their mouths full with words of progress, through the backdoor support policies that hinder the free development of actual people on the African continent. They prefer someone who says he doesn’t care about anyone or any countries who cannot organize their own success. These people, some of them, even say he is right – to a certain extent – if he said it. Because their countries are stuck in many ways. Why? Because their governments do not support free enterprise enough, they say. They do not invest in schooling or in infrastructure enough, while surviving (these governments) on Western aid. I can understand their mistrust of all eloquent speech on freedom and progress.

But. But what if we would not read his words as the words of a businessman? Should we not read them as those of a political leader – which he happens to be, just through the job he has? Reading them thus can explain the indignation to his undiplomatic choice of words – words that may harm not only relations between countries, but – closer to home – the human rights situation of immigrants in the US itself – the country which he happens to lead through the already difficult waters of history. Or – does he really lead, they ask? Does he not do the opposite – make the waters more stormy then they already were?

Talking of history. History is a thing that is always in the making. Even the past is never fully past. Because so much history has not yet been written, while it is ignored, or seen through the colored lense of those who managed to stamp their interests on it. Researching and writing better histories – that speak not just for the masters, but also for their victims – changes history itself – both past history and the one we are living now. And this is a tricky endeavor. It will be met with resistance – for it destabilizes vested interests and standing deals that benefit the privileged.

When reading work that aims to do just this in the American context – to do justice – based on historical investigation – to the experiences and the fate of native Americans and enslaved Africans and their descendants, I realized something that makes things even more tricky – especially if one belongs to one of these peoples. Researching history to inscribe ones ancestors’ place in it (as first person characters) means also investigating injustices of today in relation to that history –  while living in a system that was never designed for you to be part of it. How does one do that? When there is no option to remove oneself from it, no option to change it by force, no option to go around those who choose to remain ignorant to the cruelty and inhumaneness of the system that benefits them. Writing, researching, as a descendant of those who survived genocide and slavery – all while one’s people is kind of stuck on an island with the descendants of those who perpetrated those crimes – how does one do it? Where can one find the space to be free – as a researcher, as a thinker? How to survive that kind of shithole?

In philosophy the 21st century started in 2017. This became clear to me in the days before Christmas, when I had the opportunity to attend the great conference in honor of Souleymane Bachir Diagne at the University Cheich Anta Diop in Dakar. It was there that I saw something of the way ahead for philosophy in the coming age – beyond the need for ‘schools of thought’ of the past century – beyond the melancholic returns to the ‘great thinkers’ and ‘systematic’ philosophy, and beyond the need to split up the field in something called ‘analytic and continental’ thinking.img_20171221_180325037-e1514803728257.jpgBeyond the self-aggrandizement of philosophies that claimed to end history, to make a radical new start, introduce a new ‘school’, or to even destruct philosophy itself. This new, fresh, orientation I witnessed, had nothing of that – instead it boasted all things modest: doing serious historical work, analyzing the intertwinements of religion, politics, and culture patiently and honestly, and above all: working on translation in the broadest sense – making little known texts and views a bit more well known, introducing ‘marginal’ thinkers and their work to a wider audience – and in all that: shifting the geographies of reason silently but significantly.

And how I liked the way it was thought out and done: to honor a mans achievement in his own country, to do so when he is still years before retirement and may expect time to allow him to inspire others more and bring his unique views into the world. This conference breathed, above all, the atmosphere of intellectual friendship – an atmosphere that spread through all the events and meetings of so many colleagues, students, and relevant others. IMG_20171222_144127795We were in the ‘francophone’ sphere of the African continent: in a sphere and in a place – opening a space for thought. But English was a conference language too, and mostly well understood. Wolof often served to accomodate the organizational processes of course. And I was lucky to also be able to retreat for a while in my own language, Dutch, with colleagues from NL I only truly got to know in Dakar, as such things go. So, the issue of translation was never far away – especially because the man who was the centre of it all, fondly called Bachir by his friends, embodies the issues of translation in his life story – so to speak. Having moved to ‘the capital’ – Paris – of so many postcolonies for his studies, he later returned to Senegal to strengthen the philosophical world in place through his powers of translation – only to move once more (much later) to another ‘capital’ (New York) – that of American-dominated thought, to translate African and islamic philosophy and make it more accesible to an academic world still very much ignorant to its potential and real contributions to a shared and negotiated understanding of the predicament of the 21st century. Thus also repairing what was worded by Frantz Fanon: “whenever there is a lack of understanding between [the black man] and his fellows in the presence of the white man, there is a lack of judgment.” (Black Skin White Masks)

Translation is never only finding words in another language to transmit what was expressed in the original one, nor just presenting little known thinkers to a wider audience – its most important, philosophical, work is negotiation, one of the central elements of dialogue and working to shared understandings. It is stirring things up almost unnoticed, working towards the growth of knowledge – and against the ideological falsehoods that have blinded many great thinkers. IMG_20171201_101438092Involved in such negotiation Souleymane Bachir Diagne critically investigates thinkers such as Senghor and Bergson, Iqbal and Thierno Bokar, – meanwhile fearlessly researching how religion and modernization, democratic movements, searches for identity as well as equality, interact, mix, and may be used as ways to open up towards ourselves and each other.

Translation, as practiced in Diagne’s work, is a gentle force, and very much needed to open the future to what our varying traditions of knowledge have been trying to discover about humanity. Now that we, in the 21st century, in our ‘post-colonial’ age, are doing the work of realizing the crimes we have done to and suffered from each other – we can finally start to learn differently. Not just reaching for ‘excellence’ in monological ivory towers of reason, but mastering another kind of excellence – the one that consists in the craftmanship of reading (listening!), translating (transferring) insights – in the budding multi-centered system of knowing that is presently being built. This kind of excellence is modest as well as daring, as it knows philosophy is not just about intellectual grasp – but is aiming to acquire such a grasp while working against inequality and injustice, and for wisdom and love.