Archive

Tag Archives: Philosophy

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.

 

Advertisements

I have been silent for too long. The reason was not, surely not, being tired of blogging. As usual once a week an idea for a post sprang into my mind. But over the past months, I could never sit with some rest to write it. There were more papers to write, or finish for publication than I was used to, as a result of the many conferences I was lucky to go to over the past one and a half year. A common book project which I initiated about two years ago was suddenly asking for the work to be done, as a publisher came on board. There was a sudden increase in invitations to speak at book presentations and events for a wider public. And teaching just had to go on as usual. It seemed longtime investments in what matters to me in philosophy were now coming together – with movements in the world around me. Such a time is called momentum – a window for action after long preparations which one didn’t know if they would lead anywhere, and where, if so.

Reflecting on the change in myself that accompanies this momentum, I often had to think of a story, told by a friend I met in my first year of philosophy, in 1980. This friend was deeply involved in yoga, meditation and what we now call spirituality. Back then it was called mysticism. Like a Jehova’s witness, she was always pulling me into conversations on spiritual matters, and said she was convinced that althangela-81-4-2ough I was burying myself in the classical curriculum of my philosophy studies, she knew that I was really oriented toward the mystical. I protested the word, as ‘becoming one with the One’ did not attract me – a fan of negative dialectics and critical thinking. In the end, of course, we had more in common than we both would admit, and we entered into a fundamental conversation that lasted for 16 years. Then my friend (who had changed to religious studies in 1981, out of protest against what we now call the white canon in philosophy) at the moment she was about to start her PhD project on sufi mysticism in the middle ages, and already was making headway with learning Arabic and Persian, died.

The story she told me, in an attempt to convince me to turn to the spiritual, was from Carlos Castaneda’s famous books on his journey into native American shamanism. She tried to convince me to read Castaneda by recounting he had embarked on his surprising journey, full of personal challenges and spiritual visions, from the moment he had decided to simply say ‘yes’ to anything that came upon his path. So he said yes when he was asked to become the pupil of a native American shaman.

To me saying yes like that was almost like blasphemy. Negative dialectics, you see. Keeping distance, making detours, looking at what divides and taking its painful realizations in, were what I lived by. Distance over against nearness. And this was not just a matter of psychology, I knew it was necessary to get where I needed to be to understand something in this life. Long before I started this blog I wrote what I called my ‘log’ – a personal handwritten diary of events and experiences in my philosophical life. In that log, I once wrote that my life was about continuous detours. Moving somewhere, but returning every time to find that I could not enter, not say ‘yes’.

Now I find myself saying yes all the time – to the many unexpected invitations that come towards me, like the exciting one that came just this week – to come over to the university of Essex to share my experience with introducing intercultural and African philosophy in teaching. Entering, saying yes, is a great change to me, and the interesting thing is that I didn’t give up my critical approach in (and to) philosophy to get there. The world around me has changed. The world has taken many detours too, with devastating consequences, and more are happening even now. In present times, however, new platforms that urge for change are springing up – outside, but now gradually also inside academia. Now that I am learning to say yes, I find companions who have been getting to this same place on their own lonely journeys. A window in time has opened and one never knows for how long it will remain so. Criticism is wanted, and now directly transforms into affirmation for those working for positive changes. This is called momentum.

In this blog I have commemorated my friend Reva van Haaster, who died in 1997 – I have hardly known a more dedicated, thorough, and unprejudiced researcher than her, and she was also that friend who brought flowers when you had passed a difficult exam… Over the years we pursued a dialogue between our often diverging viewpoints, inspired by true friendship and love for knowledge.

This post is also a greeting to all my philosophical friends, new and old, you know who you are. Let’s enjoy the momentum and make a difference!

The photo shows me, 1981, a fan of negative dialectics and critical theory – still pursuing philosophy after my friend had left the studies.

Writing books is, of course, a way to communicate. A very complicated way, perhaps. When you are at it, there are no responses, you do it alone. The process needs a temporary reduction, even, of the normal intensity of communication with those surrounding you. Still the purpose is to communicate. Why even write books, as it takes so long, before you get some response, if you even get meaningfull responses at all. The point is that writing books is also a process of communication with oneself – a process of finding out whether you can uphold some views you arrived at, over against the potential readers that are in the back of your mind – among whom you yourself are one. It might also be a way to claim something, a position in a debate. Or a way to make a debate possible. The background is alway some form of communication – a form that cannot be done in tweets and posts, or even articles, because there are many sides to the subject which you all want to do justice to and treat in their connectedness.

Looking back, I find that the books I wrote did different things for me. Some where, in fact, the closure of a project of research – like my book on Spinoza. I had researched all there was, at that time, and had said all I could or wanted to say on his work. There were times I thought I could add something, but it never seemed urgent enough. My second book (Return of Nature) was meant to clear the ground to move beyond the separations that I thought wrong, and that had created difficulties in wording what I experienced. Separations between discourses such as poetry and science, religion and reason, politics and spirituality. That done, I moved on, and didn’t feel the need to return to it. People have asked me why I never translated one of those books. The reason was that I already had become involved in the next set of questions, and didn’t allow myself the time to return to the former one.

The latest book, on ghosts/spirits, had an altogether different effect – it seems to have been an appetizer. In the process of doing the research for it, I found so much material that I never heard about, not only in the philosophy curriculum, but neither in discussions with colleagues or on conferences. It seemed that almost every philosopher known for his strict reasoning or fundamental empiricism had said something on ghosts or spirits. In the years since that book appeared, I have read more and more on the subject. Digging into what thinkers so diverse as James, Feyerabend, Kant, Derrida said on the spiritual. I also try to read on spiritual phenomena from other angles than philosophy, as you might have noticed, like anthropology and religious studies.

So this last week I thought I’d start this book on Steiner that was lying around now for some time. Just an introduction into his life and work, nothing heavy yet. The writer is Gary Lachman, one of the founders and musicians of the band called Blondie – which is funny to me, having watched Debbie Harry jump on the screen when I was a teenager, and never having been able to guess back then that I would share my profession with one of her band members. Gary Lachman studied philosophy, and developed this interest in esoteric writers in the Western tradition. He produced quite a series of very readable, and interesting introductions into people like Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, and Steiner, among other books on spirituality and spiritualism.

He gets the skeptical reader, by sharing his difficulty with the dryness of Steiner’s philosophical work as well as with the lack of argumentation or foundation of his esoteric disclosures (citing one of his followers as having said of Steiner’s work on occult science ‘if I read it for any length of time, a feeling of nausea came over me’). He relates of Steiner’s life, combining material from his autobiography and from other sources, and resists too much psychologizing. Above all, he treats Steiner’s philosophical work, which deals a.o. with epistemological and anthropological questions, with great seriousness. He shows how Steiner was influenced by Fichte as well as by Nietzsche, and aimed to overcome the idea that the knower is a passive observer – an idea which he saw as a false result of Cartesian and Kantian epistemology. Lachman got me curious to try to find and read some of those works, as ‘forgotten’ philosophers are always interesting – revealing what was discussed against the main stream – reading them a way to open some black boxes (as Latour called established views that are seen as given truths after the process of being debated and sometimes almost dismissed).

But having come to the second half of the book, the one in which Steiner’s connections with theosophy, and his final break with it – establishing anthroposophy as a movement of those who left the theosophical ‘church’ in his support, my interest is declining. Am I too much only interested in the philosophical project of finding words for the spiritual that are open to argumentation? And not enough in the history of its politics? It must be so. It has been the same in my relation to the catholic church, which formed the backdrop of my religious formation – it’s power struggles can annoy or irritate me, they never capture my full attention. My project is to try to find connections in language, webs, to venture past anything directed towards strengthening walls or creating tight-knit communities. To open black boxes and closed discourses, for they might be in need of reconstruction and surely of deconstruction. Finding words for experiences that could not find space yet. So when Steiner stopped writing philosophy and became the leading figure of a spiritual movement, his meaning for history might have begun – that is where my interest as a philosopher got lost.

I read (the first half of) Gary Lachman’s Rudolf Steiner. An Introduction to His Life and Work, Floris Books, 2007

Did you immediately get the references to other philosophers that this title implies? Did you think of Bertrand Russell’s book ‘Why I am not a Christian’? Or rather of Friedrich Nietzsche’s essays titled ‘Why I am so clever!’ and ‘Why I write such good books!’? Well, I did, after I thought it up. Russell’s text was meant to give a criticism of Christianity, of course, and the personalized sentence was meant to give it urgency, and to draw attention. Nietzsche’s texts did more, philosophically. They criticized the idea that philosophy can be detached from the individual that writes it, and in the meantime they make you smile, at least they did that to me, as the irreverent boasting so strongly goes against the grain of the courteous style of classical philosophy. Untill Nietzsche philosophers succesfully upheld the image that they could erase themselves as individuals, giving the weight of universality to their thoughts, and in the meantime, through the backdoor so to speak, bestow fame upon their own, impersonalized selves as ‘thinkers’. Plato was ‘a great thinker’, it is said. Never ‘he was a great man’.

Since Nietzsche, and to be sure some others from his times, we can not get rid of the nagging truth that there is a man, or a woman, speaking in those venerable texts. And of recent, with the appearance of Heidegger’s notebooks, it gets more and more difficult to separate thought from life. Feuerbach already was very clear in this point, of course, the thinker whose words I took as the motto of this very blog: ‘try not to think as a thinker, but as a human being.’ What you feel, what you have enjoyed and what you have suffered not only will appear in your work, but you should let your work profit from it, more, express it in your work, to let others get a fair view of your experiences and be able to dialogue with your thoughts in the context of your life, and possibly to learn from them.

Just a few days ago I realized why I am a philosopher. And by that I do not mean to say why I became one, why I decided to go and study philosophy a long time ago – this had a very simple reason: I had the impression that the study of philosophy would help me the most to better my writing, which was my main goal when I was young. And it did. I also do not mean to say anything about the advantageous effects being a philosopher might have – like being able to clear up minds, my own and other’s, or being able to enhance the knowledge of why our world is like it is, etcetera. These are all positive effects of being a philosopher, to my view. What I mean with the title of my post of today is, however, something else: just what makes me passionate about what I am doing, right now, every day anew, if possible. What makes me enthusiastic. Why I LIKE it. I just suddenly saw that doing philosophy to me is the possibility of being in an adventure. The adventure of the mind, so to say.

Feyerabend said it very clearly, in his ‘Against Method’, although he was speaking about science: only ‘a little brainwashing [makes] the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more ‘objective’ [than it actually is]’. In fact it is ‘as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as the ideas it contains’. The same goes for my pathway through philosophy: it is complex, sometimes chaotic, it contains mistakes, and it is entertaining. And I want to add this: it is exciting. Learning something new from time to time, seeing new connections, after having read so many books and articles some times without really knowing why – untill they suddenly and unexpectedly get connected amongst each other, creating new views to understand things which were irritatingly incomprehensible before. I just like it, like wandering, not knowing where I will go when I start out. The best views are the unexpected ones. The sudden glittering sunlight on a canal, when I take an alternative route with my bike. Finding an unknown part of town, or of countryside. Meeting people who have a view of life I did not know before. Learning from grief and disappointment, from success, and from shame. In doing philosophy, which is always mixed with all these personal events: suddenly getting enlightened about something which seemed closed to understanding for years on end. Yes! I like it!

 

Once upon a time, when I was a poor student of philosophy, I stumbled upon a book named Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. I had never read a text by its author, Ludwig Feuerbach, but the title uplifted my mood. It was reduced in price, so I could buy it… the only problem being that it contained the reprint of its original edition in Gothic script. Because of its affordability, however, I decided I would learn to read it, and was happy when I finally managed to do so.

Feuerbach is a philosopher who is read too little. Most people know his name only from introductory courses in philosophy or theology, and name him in one breath with Marx. ‘Oh, Feuerbach, that’s the one who said religion is human projection!’ Well, there would be more to be said about that characterization, but it is not my aim here and now. Feuerbach wrote his pamphlet-like book on philosophy (published in 1843), aimed at ‘pulling philosophy down from the divine, self-sufficient bliss in the realm of ideas into human misery’, into ‘the realm of embodied and living souls.’

The reason for Feuerbach to try to revolutionize philosophy was the predominance of idealistic, otherworldly thinking in the midst of great social change. The reason that we should widely re-read his book is that, although philosophy in our days is no longer idealistic, it surely is otherworldly. Not in the sense of focusing on the spiritual or the religious, but by focusing only on questions of academic interest, forgetting the huge problems most human beings, as well as the non-human earthlings (animals, plants), face every day in our times.

It is perhaps not the primary aim for philosophers to change the world, as Marx urged them to do, but it should certainly be their aim to change our understanding of the world, so it can come to light what has been silently screaming for change. Feuerbach thought that philosophy should take the place of religion, providing moral and spiritual direction to humankind. He was not right in that point, since we better draw from multiple guiding traditions, in stead of looking for a single one to take the lead. With William James I hold that human imperfection asks for plurality in views and philosophies, since we can never reach absolute certainty. With Feuerbach I strongly agree, however, that philosophy, ‘without damaging the dignity and independence of theory’ needs a practical direction. It should look global problems, as they relate to our behaviour, in the eye, and focus on ‘the needs of mankind and of the future’.

All citations are taken from Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1986 [1843].

Ludwig Feuerbach lived from 1804-1872.