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When you have read my posts regularly, you will have noticed that I tend to discuss (and read) more history books than you would perhaps expect in a philosophy blog. Today I will try to explain some of my reasons for this.

During my studies I also read ‘other’ books of course, because philosophy as such has no subject, or ‘everything’ is its subject. Philosophy is a way of thinking about things, but these things can range from the principles of mathematics to poetry, and all other thinkable subjects. Famous are writings from philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or Gottlob Frege on mathematics, and Heidegger and Gadamer on poetry, just to illustrate my remark. Of course there is also philosophy on philosophy, on its methods of reasoning and argumentation, on its history, and on its place in the whole range of human sciences.

My ‘subjects’ outside the works of philosophers and about philosophy itself have gone through different phases. After finishing my masters, for some years I read passionately in the field of theology, history of Christianity and bible studies. The philosophers I read in that time were Arendt, Levinas, Strasser and of course Spinoza. After finishing my PhD there was a phase that I read rather widely, in environmental studies, in philosophy of science, and, in philosophical methodology (so to speak), investigating the approaches of hermeneutics (Gadamer), deconstruction (Derrida) and pragmatism (first Mead and Cooley, later James). It was the time of my postdoc research. Later I moved to African philosophers like Mudimbe, Mbiti, and E. Eze, and read a lot of cultural anthropology on the side. The last few years I discovered, next to reading more of James and Derrida, more of Scheler and Foucault. And the ‘extra’ reading is nowadays very often in history, especially in ‘alternative’ views on the history of the US (not the one of the victors) and on WWII.

Why this route anyway? Just yesterday, when I started another book in the history of philosophy, on James, to be specific, the interesting study by Francesca Bologna called William James at the Boundaries. Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge, I was fascinated by her introduction on the strange address James gave as president of the APA in 1906. The speech was about ‘The Energies of Man’. In this speech he described the benefits of yoga and drinking alcohol to enhance the human spirit, and cited popular works and works by thinkers on the verge or outside academia. Bologna provides good reasons for discarding the idea that James was losing his mind (as some philosophers present did), by showing that it was a deliberate and recurring strategy in his work to transgress boundaries. “James struggled to reconfigure the relationships between philosophy and the sciences, as well as professional and amateur discourses. Through these efforts […] James reinterpreted the nature of philosophy and science and, by doing so, proposed a new vision for the intellectual and social order of knowledge.” (Bologna, p. 4) When reading this, I realized that for many years, without knowing what I was doing, I had been following a similar course as James, in this respect: something in me always opposed itself to the pressures to keep to one discipline, and to specialize within that discipline – to discipline my curious mind, so to speak.

So now why the history? Let’s start IMG_3706with WW II. In other posts I have made clear that the world in which I grew up pushed me to read up on it: the world of the 60s and 70s of the last century, a world that wanted to move on, that drove itself crazy over Cold War stuff, and that actually consisted of an almost audible silence about matters nobody wanted to be remembered of. Every year now new material on that time still comes out. Some things were only researchable after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and some are only researchable now that certain individuals die, leaving archives, or because their power to silence others is gone. Just recently I came across an article about a collective of secret historians who wrote on the events in the Warsaw ghetto. Those writers, who knew they probably were not going to survive the hell they had landed up in, took it upon themselves to register things as they experienced them, for posterity. I was absolutely amazed and awed by their farsighted courage and mental strenght. And I realized that all over the world, projects like that must still be happening, even now, more or less in secret, more or less under the duress of oppression.

The powers that try to rule history, attempt to obscure it at the same time, for their own actions to be more effective. And that’s where the alternative histories of the US also come in, from that same stifled Cold War time I grew up in, where we were taught to think of the US as our saviours from Hitler, who brought us all the goods of modern life, washing machines, cigarettes, chocolate bars, and scientific management. There was nothing to be worried about anymore ever, as long as we stuck to our new big brother. Even as a child I felt that both things were unhealthy: not wanting to know about WW II, and not wanting to know about who our new protector was. I realized more and more over the years that there can be no good thinking, no good philosophy, without a wish to know history as it ‘really’ happened. Not that we can ever find ‘real’ history in an absolute sense. But we can at least get rid from the worst outgrowths of propaganda, by doing the real work of serious history. And if we are no historians ourselves, we should read all the painstakingly collected facts and carefully reconstructed structures of what happened and how it was transferred. It will clear our minds.

And, last but not least, we should do the same with the so called ‘history of philosophy’, which, for the most part, is not history at all, but a construction to bring us under the impression that the Europeans, that is the Romans and the Greeks, and later the Enlightenment thinkers, imagined all things worthwhile. There are powerful powerstructures at work in that construction too. Peter Park, in his recent work Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 has written a real historiography of how this powerstructure came to dominate the history of philosophy. Many others of course pushed in this direction by their own investigative work, among others a philosopher whom I discussed here before, Emmanuel Eze. Just the other day I watched the entire talk he delivered some years before his untimely death, which has been luckily recorded and publicized on youtube, and would recommend you, when you watch, to keep watching till the end of the second part, which makes clear why not reading outside the ‘official’ history of philosophy will not only makes the discipline remain stuck in old questions, but also deny itself many qualitative texts that it has never read or even known of which could help to rethink these questions and perhaps think up better answers than it did before.

 

 

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Yesterday was father’s day. Many friends shared pictures to honour their fathers (some of them deceased) on social media. To express what I owe to my father, I will share this piece, which I wrote some time ago, but for some reason kept stored in my computer…

When my father spoke about WW II, one story always returned. The story of that morning when he discovered that our country had been occupied by Germany. Living close to the border, that morning he saw German soldiers passing  his parental home as if they had the right to do so – which made him realize that borders can suddenly become futile,  imaginary. After the soldiers passed, the milkman came into the street and put bottles with fresh milk in front of the house, like he did every day. The absurdity of life going on. Only now do I understand why that story was so meaningful for him, kind of summing up the connection between his convictions and actions.

At that date, May 1940, he had just turned nineteen and had started his studies at the university not long before. In the following years, he tried to find his own personal response to the occupation – intellectually and in practice – which led him to take part, three years later, in underground activities. This was not a subject about which he talked much, and when he did, it was in an almost excusing manner. The cell didn’t accomplish much, and its members as well as their families paid the highest price. Only after a few months they were found out, three members were executed, my father survived in hiding. His brothers were taken hostage, and were made to suffer the concentration camps; his younger brother perished in Bergen Belsen. The family of the founder of the cell was burned to death in their house as retaliation by the nazi’s – among them a girl with Down’s syndrom. The activities of the resistance group were to help people get into hiding with false papers, and to print and distribute pamphlets to call the people of their city to join in the general strike  of April and May – a protest strike by the Dutch people against the occupying forces.

After the war, my father never went to meetings of ancient resistance people, and didn’t like the kind of self-congratulatory atmosphere surrounding much speech about ‘the resistance’. I always understood something of the emotional side of his discomfort, as he had to live with the unspeakable personal consequences of his actions. Only now am I beginning to understand there was also a principled side to it. His actions were never for ‘the fatherland’ and he would not have participated in armed actions against the nazi’s. For he had, in a sharp light, seen the futile and imaginary character of the idea of a nation connected to a piece of the earth. It was, in his eyes, not worth the fight. He spoke often about how he saw that the era of the nation-state was over, although the world didn’t yet understand that. He was a visionary idealist – his actions were aimed at stimulating the suppressed democratic potential of actual human beings, not at saving the Dutch nation.

During the last conversation we had about the war, a few months after his 94th birthday, he told me that his resistance work did not just start when he got involved in the group initiated by his friend Toon Fredericks, as I thought. His first ‘illegal’ action was in 1940, when he intentionally ‘lost’ his identity papers, to help a Jewish man to flee or go into hiding. Again, during the Christmas time of 1942, he assisted in helping a Jewish woman with her child (the wife of an Austrian artist, who already was hiding with friends) to go into hiding in a home for the elderly nearby. These were untold stories until the end of his life. He would never want to be in position that people would applaud him for such actions. Not just because no applause could ever make up for the loss and the destruction of that time. But also, I suspect now, because he felt a distance to any public honoring of helping Jews, such as that by the state of Israel. No state power, to his view, should morally appropriate the actions of individuals to stand up for their fellow human beings. In this vein we spoke about the Paris attacks, last year: how French government officials appropriated the protests against terrorism of grieving individuals, interpreting them as support for the French nation.

My father could no longer believe in the nation state, after that morning in 1940. In discussions on political philosophy, in which I put forward Seyla Benhabib’s thoughts on this matter, and Hannah Arendt’s, he granted me that nation-states – peoples seeking protection by claiming a piece of the earth, drawing and defending borders – perhaps were still a necessary institution (the lesser evil) in these times. I, for one, did not share his 1940’s idealist belief that the problems of a nation-state system could be overcome by creating a world federation or something of that sort. I was always more on the Nietzschian side, stressing that one always has to reckon with human irrationality – in whatever era we might come to live.

Having had a full philosophical training myself, whereas he did only some courses in philosophy while studying law, and later chose practical jobs above academia (jobs in which he tried to stimulate the potential of individuals: young workers, those seeking later in life education, and young people with learning disabilities) – my argumentation was stronger. So he usually let me ‘win’ on the theoretical plane. It is only now, when I see his life ‘from the outside’ so to speak, as he died last October 2015, that I understand the consistency between his beliefs and his actions. He did believe in democracy, he did believe in the necessity of reason to organize human relations, he did believe in furthering human potential. He was very cautious of any combination of state power and national sentiments, to say the least. His hesitations over against armed resistance sprung from the same source: it would, in his eyes, always be incorporated by some kind of nationalist state power, and could not support a free flourishing of human life. As much as I can see how this position is very idealist, perhaps not of this world, I acknowledge respectfully his silent consistent adherence to the experience expressed in that story of soldiers and a milkman, of early 1940: that no nation state can protect you, in the end, and that, in spite of that, life just goes on.

 

 

From the time I was in primary school, my father and I were in an ongoing conversation and discussion on philosophy, religion, politics, law and ethics. My philosophical work has to a certain extent been the critical exploration of presuppositions and foundations that showed in these discussions. This article is meant to say thank you (a thank you that is never enough) to my father for the intellectual and critical inspiration I got from him sharing his thoughts with me.

When I read the opening lines of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity for the first time, about thirty years ago, I felt overwhelmed. They moved me, before I had tried to understand them: ‘Does not lucidity, the mind’s openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war? The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives.’ At this moment (after having made a study of the entire work with my class in the year before last) I am ready to make an attempt at an interpretation. The first sentence expresses in my opinion: human cleverness, it’s talent at working out ever new ways of tackling the problems of life by means of understanding, is fired by this mind-set: there is a scarcity of goods; we are, in our endeavours to harvest them, constantly threatened by enemies who want to take them first and who will, if necessary, destroy us in the process. The second sentence then says: alas, in order to win, or to not lose the war, we have to pass by, if necessary, our obligations to others (and to ourselves, perhaps, as subjectivity springs from moral awareness) – because this war has made all morality provisional.

The troubling point in these sentences is not so much that in a real war we may be forced to suspend our moral obligations towards others (although that is troubling enough!), but that Levinas suggests that all human research, all gathering of knowledge, in it’s normal, non-war condition, springs from a war-like matrix. One is tempted to say: it is executed under the reign of the metaphor of war. And one is also tempted to acknowledge this to be a fair description of much twentieth century and present day research. Adolf Hitler pushed German scientists (that is, those that he had not expelled from their jobs for being of Jewish descent) to be the first to improve human understanding of genetics, of rocket-science, of mass psychology and other subjects useful for extending German domination, by marketing his idea that Germany was drawn into war unwillingly – because of all kinds of threatening powers, external and internal. After having defeated the dictator, the mightiest victors, the USA and the USSR, adopted and expanded his system of pushing scientists forward by making use of the metaphor of war, spreading the idea of being under constant mortal threat by the other power.

It is not strange that since the days of the Cold War the metaphor of war has been nesting inside the institutional sphere of science itself: universities, research institutes, and funding organizatons all tell their researchers to compete as if the enemy was right behind them – they have to ‘publish or perish’, their work has to be innovative, excellent, and useful too, be it in the fight against climate change, disease, hunger, poverty, illiteracy, etc. etc. etc. Under ever growing pressures to perform (or else! Or what else?) we see the tendency to commit fraud in research also grow, as well as the tendency to produce sloppy research. There is no time to do it better, it is felt by a lot of researchers, since… we are in a war? With whom?

It has not always been like this, of course, and Levinas’ words do not describe ‘the mind’s openness to truth’ as such, at least I do not think so. They moved me so much because I grew up in the long shadows of World War II (shadows which have not cleared away completely up till now), and they described the reality I lived in. It does not make sense, however, to understand understanding as being always and inevitably produced under the banner of war. Understanding can be moral, in Levinas’ sense – motivated by seeing the fear and suffering of the other. Moved by eternal obligations and unconditional imperatives (not to kill, not to cheat, not to rob others from what they need to survive). It is not so much a choice for another kind of scientific research, but a refusal to work under the reign of the metaphor of war. If I do not let myself be frightened that others might get there before me, or will take it from me, I might also refuse the seduction to cheat, to be sloppy, or to accept injustices in academic working conditions. Levinas’ opening lines hopefully make academics think again if they push themselves and their junior research assistants to produce more and more results, against the common sense insight that ‘more’ is nothing once we have denied the supposed wars which are pushed upon us.

Emanuel Levinas lived from 1906-1995. I cited from the 1979 edition of his Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. The original French edition appeared with the same publisher in 1961.

I think he is the most funny philosopher that ever existed: Paul Feyerabend. I don’t remember why I bought his autobiography, Killing Time – I think I just saw it in the book shop at the Station, at a moment I was in need of something new to feed my mind. I didn’t know his philosophical work back then. In recent years I have read the book twice and would read it again, because it is so entertaining. And wise…

The title of the book is funny: normally we think of killing time as doing things with no lasting result, unnoticeable things, like playing cards, or worse: watching the screens with moving images which nowadays are everywhere in public spaces: in airplanes,in  busses, even in the waiting room of the family doctor. In countries where such screens would be unaffordable luxury men kill time in the traditional way: standing around on corners and talking about nothing… Feyerabend uses the expression to characterize his amazing international philosophical career.

As an Austrian youth he participated in World War II on the nazi side, and he is bluntly open about it. He discloses the fact that at age 19 he just had no deep thoughts about the events of his time, or that his own existence had any connection with the fate of others. He thought of war as just some adventure, but had to pay for his participation with irreversable invalidity. That, however, didn’t make him lose this attitude: the boyish, adventurous, wanting to live life to the full-attitude, which also characterized his life as an academic. He played around, wanted to win from his colleagues in debate, and became hugely popular with his ‘anarchistic’ book Against Method. It were the days of counter-culture and hippiedom, days that made the succesful professor into a cult figure. But none of this, he later saw, was really important. In those days, he knew no deep love, he didn’t understand about connection or compassion. It made him realize, as an older man: it all was just killing time.

Who wants to read his academic work might also enjoy his wittiness, and the cleverness in which it is dressed. But in his autobiography, with its narrative, instead of argumentative, style he didn’t turn into a lesser thinker. He turned into a better thinker instead. One might regret that because of his early death at 60 he didn’t have the time to turn his ripened vision of life into a new philosophical book. He himself writes, however, at the end of Killing Time, about the war inside him: between the ambition to be seen as a great philosopher and the human need to write clearly and simply, so one can share with other human beings. His final and humble insight is that he doesn’t desire intellectual immortality, but only that love may endure. Just the touching words of a man who is dying from cancer? Or a serious call to all ambitious fellow humans: ‘stop killing time!’

Paul Feyerabend lived from 1924 – 1994.

His autobiography is: Kiling Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend, The University of Chicago Press, 1995