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


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

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

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


Rico Sneller giving his response to the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



It is always something of a miracle to me, to see that something that I am working on was announced by me years before. What was announced in this post – the interdisciplinary discussions, and the cross-cultural hermeneutics, is taking shape right now, in a new book project with the working title ‘Animals, humans, spirits – A philosophy of spirit ontologies’. Take note: I shifted from ‘ghosts’ to ‘spirits’ – not in an attempt to deny what haunts, but in an effort to understand what animates whatever appears. The life force, so to speak. The agency in the spiritual. To be continued when new questions arise during the writing process!


A new colleague doing research into spirituality asked me about my research on ghosts. The book that was its outcome is about how modern Western thinkers (from the seventeenth century up till now) have taken position on ghosts, apparitions, spirits and related phenomena. Trying to give her the shortest description of the results of that research, I said: ‘it feels like I just stuck my toe into the ocean.’ We have no adequate framework to describe, categorize, or understand what’s going on here. Concepts stem from widely divergent discourses, and there is no common opinion yet what disciplines, if any, have the instruments to study the field.

Terms we have, a lot. Demons, angels, forebodings, synchronistic experiences, spirits. And related terms: magic, witchcraft, spirituality, voodoo, supernatural, shamanism, psi, haunting, even hauntology. They come from everywhere: from spiritual traditions all over the world, from cultural anthropology, pre-modern theology, modern psychology…

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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.