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Ethics

Today a colleague tweeted this Spinoza quote from the Political Treatise:

“Those who take an oath by law will avoid perjury more if they swear by the welfare & freedom of the state instead of by God.”

It made me aware of why Spinoza’s habit of putting things in a conditional manner has always appealed to me so much. To my knowledge he is one of the few philosophers who does this so consistently. And not in order to be vague, but to be precise. Spinoza understood from experience what it was to live under repressive regimes – and he saw two main vehicles for oppression: religion and politics. The main insight from his TPT was that humanity cannot free itself (its mind, its heart) without adressing both institutions – in their entanglement. Both play on our animality – our sensitivity to danger – by promising safety. Politics promises safety of the body, religion safety of the soul. And either one of them may use the other’s reach over our vulnerabilities to intensify their own claim. This happens all the time: when states urge us to trust a certain religion over another – because the ‘strange’ religion threatens our safety. Or the other way round: when religions urge their believers to trust a certain state power – for it safeguards them from instability and chaos.

The entanglement between the two institutions may also lead to an imagined conflict between them. We see it in so-called ‘religious’ attempts to end state power (think IS) or in political movements that try to end the power of religion (all forms of strict secularism). Both movements are confused, for they fail to see that the boundaries between politics and religion are porous. Both overlap. They both play into our natural fear of bad things that might happen, and appeal to our natural hope that this can be solved. To free oneself, therefore, Spinoza held we should address religion and politics in their entanglement and mutual dependency. They can not be separated, but can work together in more and less destructive ways. Their connectedness would be most beneficial to a good life, Spinoza concluded, when religion – albeit in a purified form – would inform politics, and not the other way round. A good life he defined as a life in friendship with others, with freedom of mind and peace of heart. To attain this one should not have religions do political things (then politics would inform religion), but political power play should rather let itself be inspired by religious things, trying to promote justice and charity. This was at least the (contested) upshot of the interpretation I gave in my 1996 PhD thesis on the TPT.

The citation I read on twitter underlines the above. Spinoza was convinced that it was easier to keep true to one’s pledge of allegiance to freedom and welfare, than to one we make to God. God is just too much above human fallibility, one could say, as He is one and ultimately just. Freedom and welfare of the state is a relative thing, and we can more easily remain true to it. My reading of Spinoza was contested as it followed a long period of Hegelian and Marxist interpretations of his work (and combinations of them) – which all aimed to reconstruct it to be progressivist, and teleological. This led to a Spinoza who claims the telos of mankind’s efforts to be absolute freedom of religious oppression – embodied in true philosophy – the mental realization that frees us from irrational fetters.

Such interpretations however overlook how Spinoza did things with words: how he made any philosophical judgements conditional. In his Ethics he mostly uses the formula: ‘in so far as…’. Here, in the PT, he allows himself to be rethorical – without losing precision. Perjury is our condition, he says indirectly. We cannot be completely true to our better nature, to freedom, to friendship – we will always fail if we aim to be ‘good’. To make our failing as minute as possible, Spinoza warns us, we better aim not too high. Freedom and welfare of the state is very important, looking up to them can keep us from doing too bad things – trying to emulate God, however, is so far removed a goal that it will automatically make us fail – and fall into desparation as a consequence.

Being truly religious then, for Spinoza, meant to claim as little as possible about God. It would better show itself in living in accordance with the two main virtues: charity (love of one’s neighbor) and justice (treating others fairly). When we practice those, we do the utmost. Aiming higher is moral pride. However, despite the humility in his philosophy, he was a believer in the modern state, as being the best guardian of the good, free, and peaceful life. A then new political form he helped to carve out philosophically. Living in the 21st century the belief in the state as the guardian of shared and equally distributed wellbeing has tarnished, to say the least. The inescapable awareness we now have of the infinite potentialities of state violence and repression make Spinoza appear not morally humble enough. The modern state tramples justice and charity with ease, even while making its citizens believe they are righteous and good. But where can we find a hold, if we better not even pledge an oath on the freedom and welfare of the state? Where can we look to anchor morality?

What inspired me to ask these questions? It were reflections ignited by the announcement of one of my students, last week, that she wants to write her thesis on evil. During the first discussion we had on her chosen theme I started to wonder why philosophers’ writing on evil had always somehow irritated me. And the Spinoza quote made me understand: speaking of evil creates a fog. It is a conjuring act. It aims to exorcize the bad things we inevitably experience in this life, as well as the bad things we do to others. Using the word ‘evil’ helps us to abstract from real life, and to rise to a metaphysical realm where things promise to be clear and well-defined. Thus we conjure ourselves away from nature’s forces – which play through us, sensitive creatures, when we feel fear and hope. We hope to lose our fear, to be absolutely safe, which inevitable means we will have to bend reality – for safety is not here in this world (not even in the religious beliefs we can have in this world). Bending reality, we will inevitably harm what is in our way.

Perhaps we should loose the concept of ‘evil’, and realize that we just do bad things, as well as good things. Perhaps philosophy cannot even meaningfully define them – as it failed badly at earlier attempts. Wouldn’t we be more true to Spinoza’s caution by abstaining from swearing oaths at all? And would we, in our present times, not better give up belief in the state as the natural guardian of peace and welfare?

Perhaps we should not swear anymore. Nor speak of evil. But attempt to do the right thing on the most inconsiderable playing field. The field without flags. Without honor. Without deaths of honor over flags. In order to be ready for such a post-idealistic politics we should overcome just one thing: the fear of fear. And its denial. Fear is real. As well as bad things. Let’s not clothe them in the solemn, metaphysical concept of evil. It makes us too easily forget those who are hurt by them. The ones that we should mourn, as well as the ones we should – now – try to protect. Only by accepting that the bad things are always already happening, and that we are inevitably involved in them, can we avoid the false consciousness we create when condemning certain acts as ‘evil’. And avoid perjury a little more.

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After a long day I went to sit outside for a bit, and I watched the stars. Reflecting on the moment and on my life as it is now, a sentence came to my head: ‘I am just living my life and enjoying it.’ It was a humble thought, not a triumphant one. And then, this sentence of Derrida, which had vexed me for years ‘to learn to live, finally’ came to my head. I cite from the head now, but it is from his Specters of Marx, which I read for the first time about seven years ago. Upon my first read this book fascinated me, as it gave me so much new insights into the world we are living in right now. Published in its English version in 1994 (French 1993), the book foresightedly analyzes the post-Cold-War world, which was fresh and new back then, but of which we see the essential characteristics unroll more and more today.

All the same, the book contains long passages of which I could hardly makes sense, as Derrida always thinks along and against and through the many texts he read – of which many are unread by me. Even of Marx, whose name is in the title, I only have sketchy knowledge. For that reason, and out of the hope to understand more of the book, I proposed we would read and discuss it in depth in the postgraduate reading group I formed a few months ago. In my language (Dutch) we have a saying: ‘two know more than one’ – so seven would even know more. And they do. After three sessions (and having progressed unto page 33 of the book) I understand more than I did before. I see, among other things, how Heidegger and Marx dialogue in the thought of Derrida (Levinas always somewhere in the background) – or should I say in his writing? In the thought that springs up when reading his writing again.

We spoke also about this mysterious sentence – to learn to live, finally – we circled around it, but I still didn’t understand what these words, that reminded me rather of self-help literature (to learn to live, finally, in 7 steps – or something to that effect), were doing in a serious philosophical text. But now, looking at the stars, as the ancient philosophers must have been doing so much more than present day ones, I suddenly saw it: this sentence was Derrida’s answer and reference to Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates teaches his pupils, when he is in prison and about to undergo capital punishment for spoiling the minds of the young, that philosophy is all about learning to die. In the mind of Plato learning to die becomes focusing on the eternal (the stars), the unchanging – to overcome the pain and anxieties of this here life. So suddenly I was present at the grand U-turn Derrida makes – we can still look at the stars, but they aren’t unchanging, as little as anything in our world. After pursuing the Platonic gaze for more than two thousand years, attempting to learn to die in vain, we better try to learn to live, finally.

And that was also what I was feeling myself – after more than half a century on this earth I have learnt to see that nothing is unchanging, not even for a moment. Large as well as minute changes surround me and work in me. Just a few weeks ago I returned to a place where I had been last almost forty years ago, and although I could remember ‘me’ being there, no cell in my body is still the same as then. The fragile structures of my body have somehow translated the memory over and over again, untill it is a faint imprint of the first experience. One cannot even say the memory captures the ‘same’ experience. Or that the ‘me’ remembering is the same.

Everything is changing, but this is for Derrida not a trigger to go and look for eternity beyond this life – but, on the contrary, to take up responsibility: to see injustice in front of me, and try to invest myself to try to restore justice (a justice that has never been, in this world, but that attracts and commands us). Here is where Marx comes in – this thinker, he says, who is ‘mad enough’ to speak to a ghost. When we were discussing in our reading group I remembered Marx’ words about how philosophers ‘up till now’ have only understood the world, but that now it is also time to change it.  This incentive Derrida takes very seriously, where he sees Marx as the first thinker who turned philosophy around – from staring at the stars and wanting to escape life, to seeing even the stars as reminders that we are up to our knees in the endless open ended decision moments of this life, and that we should take up our responsibility to do something, even when we remain in the dark, finally, about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Do something, however, not arbitrarily – but under the gaze of the ghost that looks at us – the ghost (of Marx, of the dead, of the suffering who are not fully in this world, of those without civil rights, without papers, without birthright in the affluent societies) that horrifyingly shows us injustice every moment, and our involvement in it. Thus our uncertainty about right and wrong does not mean we can be unengaged, or that we can ever, even for a moment, be indifferent. Paradoxally, this ethical awareness, after the Marxian U-turn of philosophy, means that we are on the path to learn to live, finally. To learn to enjoy life – being part of it, not fleeing it, knowing we can do something, at every moment. Or just doing something, under the gaze of the ghost – without even knowing whether we really can.

 

I want to thank here my brilliant co-readers of Specters of Marx – you know who you are. You would obviously write a very different post about your reading experiences, were any of you to write a blog. This post just addressed one moment of looking at the stars, on one fine evening in August, by one of us, who realized her ‘me’ to be within this ever changing and changeable sphere which I might want to call life.

 

Another shooting of a US citizen by US police is raising heated discussion – this time an armed citizen, apparently, who according to the police returned fire when she was shot at. Korryn Gaines, the 23 year old who was killed, posted a video some time earlier about her being stopped in her car, while driving without license plates. I was intrigued by her calm and her consistent asking the officer about his Delegation of Authority Order, which I never heard about, and the officer had neither. I wanted to understand what this was about. Some quick reading brought the concept in connection with management theory, legal structures of authority, so called sovereign citizen movements, and the question of freedom and responsiblity – which I felt the need to research further. Now, almost all discussions over the shooting of Gaines are about factual questions: whether she was mentally impaired, whether she was a good mother or not, what about her life, her age, her gun, her boyfriend; and then again about the actions of the officers, could they have done this or that, were they afraid or out to kill her – and tend to overlook the political and anti-political structures she obviously worried about before her death.

So what structures are regulating the relations between citizens and governing powers generally, and how do freedom and responsibility play out in them? And especially when police officers are concerned, who are supposed to be delegated public servants of those powers. Obviously, after bad experiences with being detained and a hostile bureacracy Gaines had decided to not recognize the authority of the police over her life any more. She had given up on the idea that ‘the law’ was lawful, and working for the freedom of herself as a citizen. She explained in videos and in written texts her reasons for not trusting the police and for not complying to their orders, and expressed that she would rather be killed than to cooperate with a system that could kill her also when she would cooperate. On her car she had a card saying ‘Free Traveler’,  and an officer said she acted as a ‘Free Person’,  suggesting that to be a special political position, instead of a general human condition. So who has decided over whose life and in which framework?

Delegation of authority functions in non-official managerial as well as in official contexts, where governing bodies exert power over people. The basic idea it represents is that authority is something else than force/brute power/violence. Authority is recognized as legitimate power, and in political terms it is based on representation. Governmental structures in a democracy are supposed to represent the people, and those working on behalf of the authorities are supposed to legally represent those. This is to make sure that officials will not act out of personal motives, nor be blindly driven by any systemic forces that may be at play in those structures. In businesses or non-governmental organizations the idea is to make a difference between personal responsibility of workers to work for the aim of the organization, and the responsibility of those who are leading the organization to officially back up those people who have the function to take certain decisions. In the course of my life I have observed several times, those in higher management positions to let someone lower in the hierarchy carry out actions that might cause negative reactions without officially delegating them. So when the negative reactions come, their subordinates will carry the responsibility, and not they themselves, as they never ordered them to do this. This shows the importance, in matters concerning the life, health and happiness of individuals that authority is properly delegated, in order for agents to be held accountable for their actions.

In the case of Korryn Gaines, her request for a DOAO was an attempt to protect herself against what she perceived as unlawful actions of the police. The point here is not to determine whether she was legally right or wrong, the question is that what is lawful in the last resort depends on what human beings in a community together hold to be so. What is lawful can in principle always be questioned and put up for discussion. The law can also be ignored or obstructed publicly by individuals out of protest (as in civil disobedience, which is something else than ignoring or obstructing the law for criminal actions). So what is clear is that, not just in the US, but time and again in all modern nations, and especially in the US because of the deadly violence with which confrontations are so often played out, people question whether the police is there for the citizens or for something else. They question, whether they represent a real authority, which implies being officially delegated by democratically recognized officials to do certain things, or whether they act out of other drives. So did Korryn Gaines.

When our modern national states were first being formed, political philosophers tried to make the authority of their governmental bodies understandable by referring to the ‘state of nature’ which was to be understood as a war of each against all – a state which legality should overcome by ‘the people’ transferring their natural right to fend and fight for themselves to the sovereign state power. The state power again was to be exerted by the government and its derived institutions. Spinoza, one of the important thinkers of natural right and the state, warned that in things political, individual people are not just moved by reason, but also driven by irrational passions – which are to be understood as emotional motives which fail to see my own good in relation to the good of others. Passions can be narcissistic, therefore, as well as self-destructive. Or both at the same time. He made clear that for all its power, a state is a fragile thing, continuously in threat of being undermined by individuals (citizens or officials) who do not base their actions on reason, but on passions.

Since the 17th century political philosophy has found new frames to understand political reality. At work in this situation is also something which is described, a.o., by Foucault, and Weber: the system, the complex, the bureaucracy, and its potential to bring generally sane individuals to despair. The system actually undermines authority, as described above, and the responsibilty and accountability that goes along with it. It obstructs the process through which individuals legitimize (ideally) state power through democracy, and through which the authority of the governmental bodies in its turn delegates responsibility to lower officials. How does it do so? Not by replacing reason by passions, but by replacing the (Spinozistic) reason that relates my good to that of the others by a simulacrum – an objectified body of abstractions of real relations. Installing a dense thicket of stamps, identifications, papers, postal services, etcetera, it silently subdues personal responsibility and freedom. The thing with bureaucracy is that, if used correctly, it can protect people, because it regulates and documents everything without differentiation between the status of persons. But used falsely, it can cover up, and even facilitate crimes from governments to the people who live on the piece of earth they rule over. This can be done by denying them (full) citizenship, or by blurring lines of delegation of authority – if no clear order has been given for a certain act of violence, nobody can be held responsible afterwards. We all know cases of encrypted orders like ‘solve the problem’ instead of ‘expell/kill/fire/detain person x’.

In this setting it is clear that there is freedom to act – for perpetrators of evil as well as for those standing up for what’s right. The ‘law’ strictly speaking cannot (and neither can the laws of bureaucratic management) determine human actions like laws of nature determine the movement of natural bodies. People can, and even have to, step outside the rules, to act freely – so they are responsible for their actions, and free – this is not an extraordinary situation and doesn’t depend on any factual aspects – it is the political situation, in which we put all rules and laws up for discussion again. So freedom and responsibility can be appropriated in the voids of laws and rule driven systems. And it is done, all the time, although laws and rules obfuscate that. Police officers take the freedom in the void where they can interpret a person as a danger to themselves or others, and then again are within the law to shoot. And someone like Korryn Gaines takes her freedom deciding to drive without license plates, or to resist arrest, as an act of civil disobedience. The law should protect her life all the same, and here is a conflict within the law between the perceived safety of the officers and the safety of the person they want to arrest. It is one of the voids where people are free and responsible, all of them, so calling her a ‘free person’ is superfluous. Of course she was. And so were the officers who killed her. Every individual, even though living under laws and bureaucracies, remains responsible for what they do. The state of nature is never far away, and no state power should make us forget that.

 

 

I took care to try and analyze just one aspect of this case, to clarify the issue of authority and freedom. This analysis of course leaves many other questions out, that also should be asked. Questions of historical violence by white people against black people, questions of social injustice, questions of the situation in prisons, for men and for women, where sexual violence is very common. But those questions again touch the factual – they regard why someone acted the way they did. They provide the content of actual political questions. I just wanted to discuss the formal aspects of the place and role of the political and the anti-political regarding the freedom of persons to act in this case.

 

A man enters the Waffen SS in 1941, in order to discover what is really happening there. His name is Kurt Gerstein. He has been jailed and thrown out of the NSDAP before, because of resistance activities against the suppression of the freedom for Christians to live their faith. Having become a member of the ‘Bekennende Kirche’, the part of the protestant church that did not accept government influence in matters of religion, he wrote critical leaflets. When a member of his family was murdered as part of the so-called ‘euthanasia-program’ (which put psychiatric and mentally disabled patients to death) his worries over the developments in his country became more pregnant. When, a hygienic expert in the SS, responsible for fighting typhus outbreaks in camps and barracks, he finds out about the mass killings of Jews, he dedicates himself to getting this information out, to foreign governments, to the Vatican, and to his own protestant circles. He also tries to prevent the murderous gas, which he ordered himself for fighting epidemics, to reach its human victims.

In both goals he largely failed. The allies, we know now, did know what happened in the extermination camps, but chose not to interfere – their primary goal being to win the war. When Germany was defeated, Gerstein wrote down his story for the allied authorities, but was jailed himself as an accomplice. Shortly after, he was found hanging in his cell. His case became the subject of twenty years of legal proceedings – the ethical analysis of his case has only yet begun.

The story of Gerstein came to my knowledge through the movie ‘Amen’, which is based on the novel by Rolf Hochhuth on the silence of the Vatican while the holocaust was going on. As the plot of the movie is largely fictional, I wanted to know more about Gerstein’s horrible dilemmas – and searched the internet. The most interesting work I found was a thesis from 1999 by Canadian historian Valerie Hebert, which analyses the difficulties in the various post-war legal proceedings to determine whether Gerstein was a resistance hero, an accomplice to the mass killings, or still something else. Seven years later Hebert reworked the thesis to an article for the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The most interesting aspects of her work on Gerstein are

  • her discussion of the legal difficulties of passing judgment on the acts of an individual in the midst of a genocide – difficulties we have seen repeated from the later cases of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
  • her stressing the remaining ambiguity of Gerstein’s choices, even when we accept his goals to have been the right ones, and take the dangers he faced into account.

I watched and read thinking how his case not only presented a challenge to the legal system, but also to ethics. From a consequentialist point of view his acts should be criticized – as they did not lead to much good;  but from the standpoint of an ethics of duty they seem more acceptable – because his intentions were good. A documentary made by the German-French channel ARTE chooses the latter point of view and thus forces a way out of the inescapable dilemma examining the Gerstein case. To my view this is the easy way out. What both ethical theories neglect is the fact that a moral law, as well as a concern for good results shrink to powerless instruments over against situations when large collectives of human beings are drawn into murderous acts on a mass scale. Some philosophers have attempted to develop new ethical approaches which take war, totalitarianism and genocide into account. Levinas for instance, and Arendt. I doubt, however, whether the ‘appeal of the other’ or ‘the banality of evil’ can capture the dilemmas and choices of someone like Gerstein. We need an ethics which digs deeper into human psychology, as well into the sociology of war and mass murder. Such an ethics, to my knowledge does not yet exist. Leaving us empty handed before the task to understand the ever new racisms, genocides and wars that leave their victims around us. And what we cannot understand, we will not be able to dismantle.

IMG_2105I just say things, sometimes. Things that just come to my mind. It is out of a kind of playfulness. Playing with thoughts, observations and words. It is something we did at home when I was little. I mean we, the kids. Sometimes it was irritating, over the top and not nice to one of us or to someone else. When it made us laugh, it didn’t always feel like having fun. Often the laughter covered up tensions in the tribe we were, seven kids. But whatever it was, the art never left me. The art to come up with strange observations. And I must confess that I’ve hurt others saying witty and clever things that were not nice, and I only realised afterward. That is the down side of it. The up side is for me however that it helps to think. To gain some new and surprising insight. From my own words (they, themselves are not the result of thinking, they just bubble up from somewhere). Or from the reaction they provoke in others.

Like the other day, when I watched the cat sitting like cats can with her paws folded inwardly towards her own chest. I said to my loved one: ‘the cat is also praying for us’. You see? A remark like that is not the result of reflection, it is just a strange thought being formed into words. I was completely baffled about his reaction, though. He said, completely serious: ‘yes, in my country (which is in West Africa) it is said that only human beings can skip their prayers and live. Animals can not skip one day – or they will die. They always have to pray.’ What had I expected? Just a compliant smile about my silly observation, perhaps. Or, nicer, a really friendly reaction because of my kind intention towards the cat. But not being taken serious – and more having my observation being fitted in a foreign frame of thought about animals and religion.

The only slightly comparable view of animals I know of is Thomas Aquinas’ remark that whereas human beings have to choose the good, in order to do God’s will, animals are created with an innate propensity to do what they are meant to do. The good in the creation sence, that is. Thomas distinguished between for levels or aspects of ‘law’  – and law meant for him not a fortuitous rule but the telos of things: what is meant to be. There is the eternal law, the ‘ideas in God’s Mind’ – say things as they are meant to be on the cosmic and eternal scale. There is natural law, which is the order of creation – how things should behave in time and space. Then there is the human law, which is the closest one can come to being accidental, as it is how things should be according to human morality. But that is neither completely accidental, as it is reigned by practical reason. But human morality is plural, Thomas is clear about that. It is contingent, one might say with that beautiful philosophical word. Factual. Not eternal. The fourth aspect or level of law is divine law as it has been revealed to mankind. It gives humans a better way to direct their lives than just practical reason, as it teaches us not only how things should be in a moral sense, but also spiritually. It leads us, quasi circular, to what we can know (not by reason, but through revelation) of eternal law.

For animals things are not complicated as that, in the eyes of Thomas. They do not have to struggle theologically, philosophically and ethically through so many levels, which perhaps conflict and complicate things amongst each other. For them all levels are conflated: they just do what was meant for them to do. God has blessed them by withholding them the curse of free will. The viewpoint I just learned, that stems from one of the many West-African traditions (or perhaps from the Arabic heritage that was brought in with islamic religion) was only similar to Thomas’s, though, in the sense that it distinguishes the human and the non human animals primarily by their relation to the Creator and not by their level of consciousness or their intelligence. There is a great difference, though, too. The praying animal is not that blessed as the Thomist animal. It does not have moral freedom perhaps (the freedom to choose evil over good), like humans have. But it has a certain kind of spiritual freedom. Humans can always turn away from God and repent again, it seems – until they come to their natural death. That is not real freedom, it is being treated like children.

The non-human animal on the contrary is taken more seriously, spiritually. It can choose to turn away from God, but only at its own mortal peril. Which make animals seem to be more serious pillars of all there is. Without them praying the fabric of the world would start to crumble. So in that frame of thought, I was right to utter the words: ‘the cat also prays for us.’ I didn’t know what I meant when I said it, but somehow I was dead-serious too. Then, how does it come that writing about such metaphysical stuff always makes me want to giggle? Is it just the remainder of the practices of my youth to surprise each other and make ourselves laugh? Or is it because it becomes clear that the most serious stuff of philosophy, the stuff about God and Creation, and How Things Are Meant to Be can only be approached by becoming a child in some sense of that expression – by just playing with funny and crazy thoughts and words, because practicising rational argumentation without the slightest fun can never come that far?

It created a trip down memory lane, to read the Derrida biography. At first because I saw the rebelliousness of some of my generation in the 70ties as the echoes of the anti-traditionalist choices of the young Derrida and his likes around 1950. Reading the chapters up to the eigthies, I was accompanied by memories of my first boyfriend, who studied French literature at first, and then followed me into philosophy. I saw him reading, always (and me being annoyed by it) – the whole of Proust, but also many authors unknown to me, and figuring prominently in ‘Derrida’: Philippe Sollers, Jean Genet, and more. He wrote his master’s thesis on Derrida, and now I am certain that the name of Agacinski (Sylviane, the unofficial second woman in Derrida’s life between 1975 and 1984) was also mentioned in the conversations between his supervisor and him. I wasn’t interested in biographical stuff back then, though, ‘just’ in philosophy itself. The voyeuristic pleasure of discussing the sinful lives of ‘great men’, practised by some professors of the French Institute and their students, was hard to understand for me, having been raised in a very idealistic, almost monastic catholic atmosphere. Trained to always look beyond the human and the all too human towards the transcendent for which we were born into this world.

Then, reaching the eigthies in the book I remembered hearing of some events in the breaks between class as they took place – like Althusser having killed his wife and being put in a mental clinic. Someone making fun of it, that Marxism was not healthy. Then, in the nineties I found a reference to that one visit of Derrida to the Netherlands (I never knew it was only that one), where I was present: in 1997 he went to Tilburg. I remember not so much of what was said then and there. I remember several things that are confirmed in the biography, though, things that struck me: at first his healthy, vital presence. Brown skin, lively brown eyes, awake, a silvery grey suit which held an admirable middle between the dull and unsized suits of normal philosophers, and the overly tailored suits of Italian machos. It was just right. Then it struck me that he spoke a very understandably English – without the accent of those Frenchmen who seem unable to respect any other language than their own. And thirdly it was remarkable how open, serious, and clear he reacted to questions and criticisms brought forward by the Dutch philosophers present.

Reading the book I was disappointed too, as I feared I would be, as some of the natural halo of such a great philosophical writer was taken away. Benoît Peeters tried to picture Derrida as a normal human being. The book is no hagiography. Looking for what made Derrida so special is not Peeters’ aim. He shows how Derrida partook in all the petty fights for honour of philosophy professors, breaking up with friends who criticized him, staying publicly loyal to those who helped him, even if they were politically wrong. All for the building of the ’empire of deconstruction’ (my expression) – connecting globally, travelling endlessly, writing frantically, Derrida did everything for ‘changing everything about the way we think’. Peeters shows mercilessly, but without condamnation, the human all too human accompanying the road to success – the hurt friends, the painful love affairs, the wife who ‘took everything from him – from raising the children to finances’, the solely formally recognized extramarital son. Well, most people have comparable stuff in their lives, although talent and ambition add extra opportunities for them. Peeters shows the human successes as well, through the friendly words of his family, students and friends – his openness, his always giving time to students, his pleasant and humorous nature.

Focussing on the human, all too human, leaves a strange void in the book though. The frantic activity – Derrida wrote on average two books per year – is just described too, without judgment or attempt at explanation. The book is a fascinating overview of, mostly, Derrida’s public life, of all his writing projects and everything they brought with them. Peeters does a superb job connecting and explaining the content of all these projects. He does not touch however on the question of the source of this streaming fountain of words. It is not that I, as a reader, would want a psychological explanation of what he did (although that would be interesting too), but some questions asked about the anthropological aspect of the phenomenon Derrida the writer. One can highlight his ‘normality’, like Peeters does, but his writing, and the profoundness of much of it, is/was not normal. It was a miracle. And it always is a miracle how some people seem born with an urge to do or to make something that is so strong that it defies all possible odds. I do not mean to say it is something ‘supernatural’, but it is exceptional. I, as a reader, would have liked something to have been said about how this individual had to give himself to a writing which was almost compulsive. A writing that had prophetic qualities, always tapping in to the events of history, to the questions of politics and to justice to come. Perhaps it also had shamanistic qualities, helping to heal some of the wounds of the times, looking beyond time (‘our time is out of joint’).

Derrida himself wrote one of the most insightful pieces on Nelson Mandela. It conjures up the vision Mandela had for humanity, makes his politics and dedication understood. This is no hagiography either, but it might be judged to be somewhat ‘idealistic’ – taking the human being as a sign that directs towards ‘what is coming’ (democracy, justice). In Mandela’s life there were also painfully failed love relationships, children dealing with the consequences of having such a father, there were doubtful political decisions, and most likely there were hurt and disappointed friends. I learnt that my idealistic upbringing was wrong to pass over such stuff in its haste to see everywhere signs of the heavenly kindom to come. They are not things that don’t count. A son of another ‘great man’, Ken Wiwa (son of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and activist who was hanged in 1995) wrote a book about being in the orbit of such a life, dealing with the debris. Searching for reconciliation with his mostly absent, and now dead father, Wiwa shows how he succeeded, in the end, by returning to the letters his father sent him from prison, by visiting other children in the same position, mainly by letting his love grow. What I want to say is: it doesn’t help to pass the connection of greatness and littleness over – as if the facts of a life are just phenomena of nature. They are not, I think. They are answers to and effects of a calling, which can only be really appreciated if one, zen-like, meditates on the togetherness of a life’s seemingly contradictions. From beyond what at first sight seems good or bad, there may be an opening towards good and bad – what Derrida could have called, following Levinas, an ‘ethics before ethics’, which is neither human, nor transcendent(al). We know it only when those two (the human and the transcendent(al)) touch each other, creating fireworks anyhow.

The Dutchman, wrote Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology, is only interested in the useful. ‘A great man signifies exactly the same to him as a rich man, by a friend he means his correspondent, and a visit that makes him no profit is very boring to him.’ Although, being Dutch, and loving any kind of humorous thought that relativizes the idea that ‘my’ people, race, sex, or other group to which I could be ascribed might be better or wiser than those to which others are said to belong – the things that ‘our’ (Western European) most important Enlightenment thinker wrote on peoples and races makes me feel ashamed of ‘us’ philosophers.

Immanuel Kant is well-known for his revolutionary appeal to each man that he should think for himself (and the famous Monty-Python clip from Life of Brian illustrates how frustrating making such an appeal can be). This was not just an ideological move, he founded this appeal on his very complex and systematic philosophy. This philosophy is often summarized in his ‘four questions’: what can I know (epistemology), what should I do (ethics), what is there to hope for (metaphysics/religion/spirituality), and who or what is ‘man’ (as the human being was called in pre-feminist times). The final question was, in Kant’s eyes, the summarization and presupposition of all three others. It is man that knows, acts, and hopes – and understanding man is therefore understanding the world. This makes anthropology (the knowledge of man) not just a discipline among others, for it digs into the enigma that we pose to ourselves – being conscious and only thus being ‘in the world’.

In the same book in which one can find the chit-chat on Dutchmen and Frenchmen and Germans, one finds a critical observation like the following: Anthropology […] can exist either in a physiological or in a pragmatic point of view. – Physiological knowledge of the human being concerns the investigation of what nature makes of the human being; pragmatic, the investigation of what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself.’ What is philosophically most revolutionary and interesting in this sentence is the idea that there are different ways of knowing, which produce different kinds of knowledge – and actually different domains of reality which we can enter or leave at the moment that we adopt or leave behind one or the other way of knowing. We can know the human being/mankind from the outside, so to speak, as a natural object – empirically. Or we can know it from the inside, as a free agent.

Many philosophers have returned to this strange potential to flip from being an agent to being an object of observation. George Herbert Mead, for instance has distinguished between the ‘me’ (the self as observed) and the ‘I’ (the acting self). The agent, the ‘real’ I, however, can not be known – in the sense that we normally understand knowing as explaining by means of causality. The I is free, and distances itself from external causes. It never knows what it will choose. Psychologically: when we choose something, we notice it when we already have done so. Choosing precedes that kind of observational knowledge. Kant, now, claimed that we can know about choosing – but in another manner than the normal empirical manner. This kind of knowing he calls reason. Through reason I can know what I, as a free-acting being make of myself, or can and should make of myself. In reason, therefore, lie the foundations of morality, of education, and of civilization. Beautiful thoughts that have appealed to many great minds through the centuries, and nowadays form the basis of the global belief in education, development, and the necessary progress of reason.

The enigma is, how a critical philosopher like Kant could mix up, in one book, these core Enlightenment insights, and gossip like the above about the Dutch. The gossip is more serious still when he looks into peoples farther away from his own tribe – the Germans (more exactly the Prussians). Not in the Anthropology itself, but in related and earlier works one can find outrightly racist remarks, where he writes about ‘the negroes of Africa’ that their belief in fetishes is ‘a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature.’ Remarks like these provide ammunition for those present-day thinkers who criticize the whole endeavour of Enlightenment as a colonialist enterprise, which has betrayed it’s own lofty ideals – as they are only the soft side of the exploitation of those who were declared to not partake in reason.

They (those criticists), pointing to the parochialism of Kantian Enlightenment, have an early predecessor. Max Scheler, who dedicated a stout volume to the critical analysis of (and finding an alternative to) Kant’s philosophy of morality and agency, already before 1916, wrote: ‘Only through the reasons contained in the foundations of Kant’s ethics […] can it be shown, psychologically and historically, that it was the roots of the ethnically and historically very limited […] ethos of the people and state of a specific epoch in the history of Prussia that Kant presumptuously dared to seek in a pure and universally valid human reason.’

There arise deeper questions, now, however. First concerning knowledge through reason. Foucault, who wrote one of his dissertation studies on the Anthropology of Kant, wrote (in a later work) that ‘we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist where the power relations are suspended […] [and] admit that power produces knowledge.’ Concluding his work on the Anthropology he made it consistently clear: Kant’s thought revolved in an anthropological illusion – believing that through man we can know the world. His question ‘what is the human being?’ led in the end to Nietzsches answer: ‘the Übermensch’. And who is this superman? He/she is the one who has become enlightened about this: that everything he/she poses as truth is an interpretation. That there is no final truth behind the endless interpretations the human being produces. And the ‘super’ in his/her name indicates the psychological strength to endure and live in this unending uncertainty.

So, if Foucault is right, where does this leave those of us who were placed by Kant outside the community of reasonable people? Does it make sense to just cry out that the Enlightenment was an imperialistic movement which used Prussian morality as it’s ideological weapons? And say that bringing the empire down will bring a new freedom? Or is there still something else about the enigma? Is it possible that there is a truth (a real one) to be found in the works that sprung from German soil? It might be this: Kant’s words were not final, they have shown to be open to reconstruction. And their appeal to self-governance have shown to contain the very weapons to break down the parochial, misogynist, racist, and eurocentric prejudices in which they have been packaged. Even if Nietzsche was right that no truth can be final, the emancipatory force of the Enlightenment ideal is open ended. It can be interpreted anew over and over again. The boundaries of reason can be redrawn (even to encompass the so called fetishist idolatry, perhaps). And even if the Enlightenment ideal will know an end, like everything in history, the end might not be here yet, as the ideal still functions as a tool in the hands of those whom Kant did not really see fit to take it in their hands.

 

Sources used:

Immanuel Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, 1997

Michel Foucault Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, Semiotext(e), 2008

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Penguin, 1977

Max Scheler Formalism in Ethics and Material Value Ethics, Northwestern University Press, 1973