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.


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


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.

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.

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?