Tag Archives: Philosophy

John McMurtry, La fase cancerígena del capitalismo, de la crisis a la cura (Valencia: Tirant Humanidades, 2016)

Las reticencias y críticas contra la globalización neoliberal nacieron prácticamente con la emergencia del fenómeno mismo, sin embargo, en los últimos años de crisis se ha venido fortaleciendo una nueva tendencia, creciente y heterogénea, de posturas críticas y acciones contestatarias contra este modelo de producción y comunicación mundial. La desconfianza y rechazo hacia una  integración global de las comunidades humanas dentro de los márgenes del neoliberalismo se dejan ver en movimientos sociales, partidos políticos y propuestas teóricas que, desde orientaciones políticas y morales distintas, cuando no opuestas, exhiben sus deficiencias y consecuencias negativas , así como el extravío e inviabilidad de su presunto horizonte emancipador.

La obra del filósofo John McMurtry, La fase cancerígena del capitalismo, se integra dentro de esta tendencia crítica, con la destacable ventaja de que su primera edición fue lanzada en 1999. En aquellos años, en los que aún predominaba un aire de triunfalismo liberal sobre las experiencias históricas que pretendieron acabar con el capitalismo, McMurtry lanzó su diagnóstico sin complejos: el sistema capitalista es un trastorno cancerígeno que puede acabar con la vida humana y con la base natural que la soporta. Es posible que hace quince años, cuando diversas regiones del planeta vivían un auge económico, esta valoración haya podido generar ciertas dudas en algunos sectores, pero con la crisis económica, política, ecológica y cultural que se ha cristalizado desde el 2008  a nivel mundial, su pertinencia es innegable. Debido a esto, el autor lanzó una segunda edición aumentada en el 2013, en la cual añade y analiza los datos y acontecimientos más determinantes de los últimos años retomando el marco analítico de la primera publicación. La edición que a continuación referiremos es la primera traducción al castellano que acaba de publicar la editorial Tirant Humanidades (McMurtry, 2016).

La investigación que nos presenta McMurtry parte de la idea de que todas las sociedades tienen una estructura de reglas subyacente, un tipo de gramática nos dice, que rige las acciones, el discurso y el pensamiento de sus miembros. Estas metareglas son la codificación del sistema de valores prevalente. Es en el metanivel  de los sistemas sociales donde el autor cree que la filosofía debe excavar para poder evaluar “su verdad y su valor en la búsqueda de su forma más completa” (p.19). Por consiguiente, en esta obra se abordan los valores que regulan, en última instancia, el mecanismo del sistema capitalista, partiendo del supremo principio que lo define: la maximización del beneficio privado monetario en detrimento de las bases naturales y civilizatorias de la vida humana.

A lo largo del texto se despliega una ontología social que postula como primer  y necesaria instancia de la existencia humana y sus sociedades el ámbito natural-material y socio-cultural, los cuales integran el life capital[1]. Éste comprendería “(…)las riquezas naturales y las creadas por el hombre que más producen en el tiempo sin pérdidas”(p.420) y estaría constituido por el capital de la tierra, el capital del conocimiento, el capital social y el capital ecológico. En esta propuesta el concepto de Capital desdobla su significado y trasciende al de la economía política clásica y neoclásica, ya que es concebido como la riqueza total –material, cognitiva y simbólica- que sostiene y garantiza la vida y, por ende, deja de limitarse al de una magnitud de valor social  tendiente a la infinita valorización del valor monetario y a la totalidad de los bienes mercantiles de los sujetos individuales y colectivos. Es así que, el life capital constituye la corporeidad y las condiciones de posibilidad reales de los sistemas sociales.

Para abordar la condición actual del sistema global y del life capital que en última instancia lo sostiene, el autor trasladara desde la medicina el marco conceptual clínico del cáncer. Pero, antes, nos aclarará que esta traslación no busca la postulación de una metáfora sino la construcción de un “modelo explicativo” (p.p.64-5) que dé cuenta de un trastorno  que invade literalmente los cuerpos orgánicos y los cuerpos sociales por igual. El principal y determinante agente cancerígeno que opera en nuestras sociedades sería las Secuencias de Dinero Privado Transancional (SDPT), aquello que la prensa mundial llama, con sospechosa neutralidad, los mercados o los flujos de capital. Estas secuencias son reproducciones monetarias anómalas de las dinámicas de intercambio y producción social que tienden a la automultiplicación sin ninguna función vital, operando igual que las células cancerígenas que invaden los organismos biológicos: “(…)Ambas se multiplican fuera de control. Tampoco tienen ninguna función  en compromiso con la vida. Ambas invaden y se extienden  al depredar y despojar al anfitrión de sus recursos. Y la clave para sucumbir en cada nivel, es la insuficiencia del sistema inmunológico en reconocerles” (p.91).

Precisamente en el no reconocimiento del trastorno radica parte de su fuerza. Al respecto, McMurtry percibe una pasividad en los economistas y los filósofos por no cuestionar estructuralmente las bases axiomáticas del sistema cancerígeno: “(…) Ningún economista hace esto porque cada paso es bloqueado a priori  por la estructura profunda de la doctrina y su modelo cientificista. Ningún filósofo moral lo hace tampoco, en la medida en que está por fuera de los límites el reconocerlo dados los tabúes metodológicos y sociales” (p.31). El cáncer capitalista se ha convertido en un tabú social, toda vez que los medios de comunicación y las instancias del conocimiento presentan profundas lagunas respecto a su análisis.  Ante esta situación nos recuerda que en la era del oscurantismo medieval :

(…)La reflexión social registrada está mas o menos confinada  a la teología moral especulativa  decretada por Roma. Las cuestiones de fondo se hacen a un lado en el plano normativo. Las relaciones sociales preestablecidas, bien se mantienen por fuera de la discusión en su conjunto, como un tabú innombrable de los medios del momento, o se les concede una mera disculpa y justificación. A esto le llamamos <<Era del oscurantismo>> por una buena razón. Pero una Era de Oscurantismo puede volver a ocurrir.(…) ¿No nos enfrentamos a una nueva teología absolutista, de las leyes eternas del mercado, en lugar de las de Dios, como los mandamientos del mundo?. (McMurtry, 2016, p. 205)

El período cancerígeno que se analiza en la obra tendría sus orígenes en la derrota estadounidense en Vietnam, el golpe de estado chileno del 73, el cambio del patrón oro por el patrón dólar en 1974 que permite la reproducción de moneda fiduciaria sin arraigo directo en la materialidad y la llegada al poder de Donald Reagan y Margaret Thatcher y la consecuente liberalización de los mercados. En los años que van de 1973 a 1999 nuestro autor observa la consolidación de una nueva “soberanía supranacional” , un tipo de “poder colectivo de secuencias monetarias” (p. 32), que circula por todo el planeta destrozando por igual las soberanías de los estados nacionales, los ecosistemas, los ámbitos culturales locales y la salud misma de los organismos humanos. A partir del 9/11  se despliega una estrategia que busca consolidar el poder global de las Secuencias de Dinero Privado Transnacional después del reacomodo que supuso la caída de la URSS y de la emergencia de varios fenómenos contestatarios que empezaban a  tomar consciencia de los impactos dañinos del sistema. Esta estrategia estaría basada en la reconstrucción de un enemigo , habida cuenta de la caída del monstruo soviético, para justificar la ampliación de la metástasis capitalista.

Pero, a pesar de el sombrío diagnóstico que nos presenta, McMurtry también se encarga de proponer unos principios mínimos, una “ontoaxiología”, que en la práctica funcionaría como “la cura” contra el cáncer capitalista. Esta “cura” estaría basada en una de las facultades naturales de los cuerpos sociales: el “(…)sistema inmune social de capacidades y competencias sobre el que todo el funcionamiento de la sociedad y cada vez más personas y especies dependen para su supervivencia y prosperidad”(p.320) . Este sistema inmune social expulsa o elimina los agentes extraños y dañinos que amenazan con desequilibrar, atacar o destruir al organismo social que supone una comunidad y estaría constituido por un conjunto de prácticas, regulaciones, prescripciones, instituciones y procesos que están orientados a proteger la vida general. Los agentes encargados de desplegar y operar la potencialidad del sistema inmunológico de la sociedad  serían los “comunes civiles” : “(…)cualquiera y todas las construcciones sociales que permiten el acceso universal a los bienes vitales” (p.497). De esta forma, “(…) el movimiento progresista, la izquierda, la comunidad, los sindicatos y las cooperativas”(p.497), explícitamente avocados a la defensa y garantía de la vida, serían los elementos operativos del sistema inmunológico social.

Mcmurtry no se limita a sostener su propuesta curativa sobre una ideal moral, sino que también lo argumenta con algunos ejemplos socio-políticos actuales que  considera saludables. Estos ejemplos serían las actuales políticas en defensa y protección de los ámbitos públicos, los recursos naturales y la vida humana que han implementado países como Venezuela, Brasil, Ecuador, Argentina y Bolivia por medio de nacionalizaciones, renegociaciones de la deuda pública, recuperación y protección de zonas naturales estratégicas, así como la revitalización del cuerpo social por medio de programas sociales orientados al fortalecimiento de la salud, la educación y el conocimiento de la población. Por ello, nos dice que “En toda iniciativa política y legislativa en América Latina existe una lógica unificadora de recuperación: la reivindicación pública de la economía al servicio de las necesidades conocidas de su gente y sus condiciones de vida.” (p.80).

En lo referente al aspecto teórico-critico de esta obra, nos parece relevante destacar que su análisis no se integra en la línea del pensamiento marxista o posmarxista. El propio autor  marca distancia con algunos aspectos de esta corriente porque que considera  que el life capital no es captado en sus postulados. Y es que Marx, nos dice, centró su atención en las células básicas del capitalismo, la mercancía-dinero p. e., sin mirar las auténticas fuentes de la riqueza , las cuales no pueden ser reducidas a la fuerza de trabajo, ya que  ésta se encuentra también sustentada sobre las mismas, es decir, sobre el life capital. A pesar de ello,   McMurtry no duda en reconocer la importancia de la obra marxiana:

(…)Lo que abre el espacio de reflexión para el análisis crítico  de los presupuestos sociales de una vez por todas, es el profundo trabajo estructural sin precedentes de Karl Marx(…) su obra rompe de forma decisiva la larga aquiescencia de la teoría con el statu quo y los privilegios de clase dominante (…) Yendo mucho más allá de Sócrates o Rousseau, él expone a la crítica sistemática la estructura de poder material de todo lo hasta hoy hay de existente en la sociedad civil(…) Ningún filósofo de la historia antes de esto se había atrevido a ir tan lejos. Desde entonces, la obra de Marx ha sido un punto de referencia fundamental en el panorama filosófico: un punto de referencia para los pensadores cuya preocupación por las estructuras subyacentes se extiende a las formas sociales dominantes, y no meramente a los ordenamientos naturales y conceptuales. (McMurtry, 2016, p.212)

Para finalizar, diremos que, al margen de las diferencias onto-epistémicas que hay  entre McMurtry y Marx, las propuestas de ambos se emparentan en el hecho de que están enfocadas en el análisis de las condiciones materiales, sociales y culturales de la existencia humana. En consecuencia, ambos toman como primer principio de referencia los hechos históricos y la estructura constitutiva y causal de los sistemas sociales que los genera. Por ello, es de agradecer que en La fase cancerígena del capitalismo las críticas y argumentos se sustentan en diversos escenarios y acontecimientos históricos actuales, con lo cual, McMurtry, como Marx en su tiempo, rompe con la endogamia metafísica de algunas corrientes de la filosofía que han decidido hacerse a un lado ante la acuciante realidad de nuestros días. Creemos que esta obra nos recuerda que, en los tiempos vertiginosos que corren, es un imperativo ético para los filósofxs  exponer  el potencial crítico de la filosofía ante un sistema desconocedor de la vida que está dominado por “egoísmos atómicos automaximizadores”.

[1] No hay traducción posible en castellano que haga justicia al concepto de Life capital, ya que capital vital y capital de vida tienen una connotación distinta en castellano

Classical Political Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity – An alternative to the competition State

Our times have be characterized as a post-political age at the end of history[1], where all political ideologies are dead and economic prioritization according to utility-maximization in the neoliberal competition state has become the only purpose of political decisions. The citizen of modern welfare society has become a work and consumption man that is not interested in the common good of community, but only wants to satisfy individual and often opportunistic preferences. At the same time modernity is characterized by wars and catastrophes (Holocaust, Yugoslavia and more recently Iraq and Syria) where the desire of power by tyrants lead to great suffering and unhappiness. On this basis of this perplexity of politics, the conservative Jewish, German and American philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) proposes an interpretation of the causes of the crisis of modernity and argues that the only way in which we can reestablish social stability is to go back to classical political philosophy by Plato and Aristotle. In the following, I will introduce thought of Leo Strauss in order to show how we here can find a well-qualified concept of political conservativism. It is however clear, that this intellectual aristocratism is different from dominant conservative at the political right that also can be accused of having reduced politics to economics and utility maximization where focus is on promotion of personal privileges and interests rather than a concern for the common good in a strong political community.

A critique of radical conservatism

At the same time as he wants to distance himself from the contemporary conservative ideology, we can consider Strauss’ philosophy as a criticism of radical conservatism that in our time has resulted in Nazism and fascism. According to Strauss tyranny and totalitarianism, represent a disturbing consequence of the modern break-through of political thought by Machiavelli and Hobbes where politics is no longer concerned with the common good, but has become power politics in order to secure the privileges of the ruling tyrants and supporting classes.

This criticism of the radical conservatism is closely related to Strauss’ own lives. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish home in Hamburg and completed in 1922 his doctorate in a Neo-Kantian university environment. In the late 1920s, he was in Berlin and worked on a book about the Jewish philosopher Spinoza’s critique of religion. In this regard, began his political philosophy to take shape in a showdown with the famous Catholic-conservative constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt who, later for a short period (1934-35) was to become Hitler’s crown jurist and main ideologist. Schmitt had several times after Strauss-depth comments revised his work On the concept of the political.[2] At the same time, Schmitt helped paradoxically Strauss to escape from Nazism by making sure that he in 1932 was awarded a scholarship to first study in Paris and later in Cambridge. It was later the start of Strauss’ career in Anglo-Saxon political science where he after immigration to the United States, as a professor at the University of Chicago came to found a school of political philosophy. Moreover, he influenced several generations of American political scientists to be interested in the political philosophy classics instead of election research, “rational choice” theory and utilitarianism, disciplines that were on the top of the American political science. That Strauss’ influence is enormous proves an opinion of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who complained that the US Government had several employees who knew more about Plato and Aristotle, than they knew about empirical political science.

The dialogue between Strauss and Schmitt continued for some years after that Strauss had moved abroad. We can say that this discussion between the young unknown Jew and the famous Nazi law professor, who even stated that Strauss was the only one who really understood his philosophy,  shows how Strauss on the one hand shares Schmitt’s diagnosis of liberalism crisis, but at the same time will find another way out of this than Schmitt’s power politics. Schmitt defines the political as the choice of the enemy and, which accordingly, is the choice of the aim of one’s own life, because we have something to believe in. The political involves the permanent possibility of war. Schmitt sees liberalism in a Nietzschean perspective as a concept of the political which is doomed in a world where slaves have triumphed where people no longer have obligations and do not fight for their ideals and recognition, but simply are pursuing their own goals in a general nihilistic atmosphere. Schmitt was extremely concerned about the increasing fragmentation of the Weimar Republic’s social order as a threat to the state, because there was no empowered central body to ensure the political sovereignty of the state.

In fact, Thomas Hobbes’ notion that people let themselves subordinate the sovereign’s power to prevent the condition of unlimited war in the natural condition reflects a theoretical anti politics because he wants to avoid hostility by replacing the natural condition by a universal and homogenous state. Schmitt maintains instead that politics is defined by having enemies and he has no alternative to the liberal protection thinking other than power politics. He puts the permanent battle mode against Hobbes’ attempt to civilize the state of nature. This means, according to Strauss that Schmitt cannot avoid being a Nazi. For Carl Schmitt, the political legitimate sovereign is the one who has the strongest will and can seize the leadership position in society and thereby realize its set of core values based on the will and decision. For such a decisionistic political theology liberalism is the real enemy, because it dissolves religion and ideals of value pluralism and will not recognize politics as a struggle for absolute beliefs.[3]

Strauss puts his political philosophy up against Schmitt’s political theology. Unlike value-nihilism and power politics, he wants to go back to the perception of the political in the classic tradition of Plato and Aristotle as an alternative to liberalism’s dissolution of the concept of politics.

A Socratic quest for the best political regime

Strauss’ systematic position is hidden in a jumble of interpretations and comments to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions in political philosophy. According to Strauss is a hermeneutics that aims to reconstruct the historical conditions of work a type of text explanation that is not true to the author’s message.[4] The consequence is that you do not get hold of the work’s real meaning, the esoteric saved opinion. There is always a political-philosophical text because the author has often been politically persecuted and therefore have not been able to present his or her opinion directly, but could only write for a select elite of smart aristocrats who in contrast to the vulgar mob could break through text’s surface and decipher its esoteric meaning.[5]

When Strauss defines interpretation doctrine as a reconstruction of the author’s original intention it is a problem, how he can avoid falling back into a subjectivist hermeneutics, where you will do the impossible by looking for the author’s psychology behind the work. This problem is solved by defining the author-intent as a meaningful whole in the work that can be deduced taking into account the esoteric terms of the production of the work. Meanwhile, Strauss’ position becomes an archeology in the sense that it comes to reconstruct the true message that has been forgotten by previous interpreters. The text of the past is a true mystery for the reader. The starting point of hermeneutics is ignorance, finality and interpret the certainty of their own prejudices, and thinking about past non-historicity must be understood on its own terms within the historical understanding of the text.[6]

Against this background Strauss defines the goal of political philosophy as to arrive at the proper nature of the case in relation to the whole. The starting point for reflection may be man’s participation and allegiance to the state. The understanding of man as a political animal comprehends the (city) state as a whole. To think politically is to think the “Politeia”, the “best regime” by fitting the nature of man in relation to the whole (The Whole). This concept of wholeness is not determined as a totality in the Hegelian sense and not as a definition of man as a part of the cosmos.[7] Strauss believes that it is wrong to understand the classic natural law and the Greek political thinking as based on the participation of man in a cosmic whole. Therefore, classical political philosophy cannot be accused of running an outdated cosmology. The whole does not imply a particular cosmological reference. Rather it should be interpreted as the logos that connects man and the state. But at the same time, to think the concept of a whole in Strauss’ political thinking seems to go beyond the concept of logos, because logos is often defined in the cosmology that political thinking rejects. Strauss emphasizes the phenomenological and pre-philosophical base that characterizes the classical political philosophy when it comes to describing the political phenomena as they appear in man’s everyday political reality.[8]

In this way, the concept of  the whole receives nature a basal function in Strauss’ view of politics. The concept of nature refers to the expression of the human soul and its relationship to the whole. The aim is to understand the policy limits and the difference between the best political regime and the here and now real possible state. The practical State of factual politics varies according to time and place. The form of the state depends on the particular circumstances and problematize whether there really is an Eidos for all states. The political reality of the state in practical political life means that the state’s idea is used differently in different states, so the notion of the best regime must be seen in relation to the particular circumstances of a specific political reality.

Thus, the philosophy of the best regime represents an alternative to historicism and power politics. The modern historicism argues that political regimes are nothing, but functions of ideological power relations and that there cannot exist an idea of the best state. Strauss believes that historicism is an expression of modernity’s oblivion of absolute values and that it nullifies itself because to assert that everything is historic in itself is a universal statement that require a trans-historical truth. Historicism contains an internal contradiction and therefore cannot counter Strauss’ project to find the good as the natural order of the best regime.[9]

To describe the political Eidos as the best regime also implies the abolition of the distinction between “facts” and “value”. The point is to show how political thought cannot work with this distinction and how the normative and descriptive are mixed in any theory of politics. Although Weber’s sociology, for example, can be value free, it is in itself a normative position to say that sociology should not have normative assumptions.[10] It is in itself a normative position to claim that sociology is value-free. Even science without values is based on values. Therefore, all political thought is normative science.[11]

Strauss illustrates the task of philosophy with reference to Plato’s cave image: philosophizing, it is to get from the darkness of the cave into the light of day, ie  the world of truth and cognition as opposed to the confused sense world in the cave.[12] In this way, Strauss’ philosophy is essentially a Platonic and Socratic mode of thinking. The separation between the state’s idea and the actual political reality remains a real possibility because the philosopher tend to seek world of ideas outside the cave, while the general state policy decisions are determined by rhetoric, power and subjective opinions. The truth about the political is obtained through the Socratic communication, a maieutic dialogue that modestly will rediscover the eternal ideas and philosophical realization of the political. Nevertheless, it is also facing the difficulty of realizing the political truth confronted with the variety of opinions in the actual political life.

The tension between City and Man

The basis of classical political thought is, according to Strauss the bond between man and the state and the notion that the state should be a good for man. It is also important to be aware of the limits in the relationship between man and state. In reality, the classical political philosophy shows that the ideal of the state’s perfect utopia can hardly be reconciled with human nature.

In his reading of Plato’s Republic Strauss shows how the philosophical man, despite the fact that he must be a philosopher-ruler in fact come into conflict with the state.[13] He would not be king, but would rather withdraw from the government to sacrifice himself for the wisdom and contemplation of the eternal ideas.[14] There is also no room for eroticism and poets in the ideal state and so the paradox is that the ideal state excludes what is very human and the humanness of humanity. Plato’s dialogue universe must be seen as an ironic and dialectical universe that juxtaposes different positions to emphasize the complexity of being.[15]

The ironic elements of the State in the Republic proves that the attempt to think the completely just, fair, ideal regime is contrary to human nature. This is because a state that is only conceivable after the idea of justice must isolate everything that is specifically human; Eros and poetry and also in the fact that the philosophers who are not interested in politics, but live for philosophical wisdom, suddenly have to rule in the ideal state. This original interpretation is in contrast to many modern interpretations of Plato’s philosophy.[16]

Plato is in many interpretations considered an authoritarian thinker that will make the philosophers to dictators and destroy the possibility of public opinion and democratic dialogue about the state’s future because philosophers are the only ones making the decisions. Therefore, the ideal state is changed into tyrannical totalitarianism. In addition, Plato was described by many interpretors as initiator of political idealism that had fatal and terrorist implications in modern society, for example in the form of Nazism, communism and fascism. Literally, the ideal state is also a representation of all the horrifying elements of utopia where citizens are sacrificed to state rationality and utility interests. The social classes are divided according to labor and natural capacity. Warriors, workers and merchants have each their function and philosophers then determines sovereignly, what is the best and most practical thing to do according to the idea of justice.

The irony of the fact that the regime envisaged by the idea of justice becomes an inhuman dictatorship shows that political philosophy cannot ignore human nature’s lack of perfection and arbitrariness by the historical situation. Strauss says that the Republic is the most profound analysis ever of the impossibility of political idealism and that the ideal state is impossible because it is contrary to the nature of the case and the whole.[17] The esoteric and ironic truth that lies behind the rhetorical game in Plato’s Republic is that a regime that is thought abstractly according to the idea of justice cannot overcome the fundamental tension between man and city. This tension between humans and the state, Eros and justice, philosophy and the real case of the political facticity continue to persist because the nature of facticity is not the same as the ideality of the world of ideas. Thinking about the best regime must not follow the idea of justice, but be balanced against the actual life of the state.

The ironic elements in Plato’s Republic are also illustrated in the course of development of the dialogue. The discussion about ideal justice begins with a critique of legal positivism, which claims that the righteous and just should be defined in terms of power, i.e., that the one who has the power decides what is fair. Socrates does not want to be involved in the dialogue, but is provoked to criticize this view, and he wants to show that justice as such is good, even though he does not yet know the content of the concept of justice. He then decides to drive the defense of the concept of justice ad absurdum in order to show the characteristics of the political. Later in the discussion of the guardians of the state, he points out the difference between the Eros and the idea of justice. In the ideal state, there is no room for eroticism and love, because sexuality is determined to serve the common good. The paradoxes of the State appear as follows: it should be the good and righteous state, it must be based on the absolute communism, but at the same time, the contingency and bodily existence is eliminated from the state, everything that characterizes the finite human nature.[18] Man in mainstream political life would by his very nature never be able to feel at home in the ideal state.

In this way, one should not interpret Plato’s Republic as a criticism of any political philosophy or as a defense of a political utopia. Instead, the book presents a description of the difficulties of thinking the best political regime, about the tension between the idea of justice and the concrete justice in relation to the whole, human nature and the state. The Socratic reflection can be considered as a reflection on the limits of the just state and the need to consider the justice in a realistic relation to human nature. However, according to Strauss there is implicitly in the Republic implied a different view of justice as the art that on the one hand, gives every citizen, what is good for him, and on the other hand, determines the common good of the state. The purpose of the good political regime is to shape a state that follows human needs and thus becomes a healthy and happy state. In this perspective, Eros, poetry and wisdom could also be present in the good political regime as the realization of justice in the relationship between historical facticity, human nature and the order of the whole.

The best regime and the political reality

A provision of the best political regime that realize the impossibility of utopia, is according to Strauss found in Plato’s Laws and Aristotle’s Politics. Here you will find the essence of the classical political thinking that is far removed from modern power politics and ideology. Plato’s  late dialogue Laws, where Socrates quite interestingly is not present, contains a vision of the best regime that is not based on abstract idealism, but is about how to solve specific practical problems in a state. In the dialogue a number of experienced state men are involved who must reach a common understanding about which laws the state should have. They do not justify the good state by virtue of a social contract as in the modern philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, but from the consideration of the best state in a natural law perspective. Practical sense and understanding of the good order, not inter-subjectivity, rights, equality or discursive rationality is the key element for ensuring the good laws.

The premise is that man only can be happy in the state, if he lives by what is natural and good for him, i.e. by the telos of virtues. Where the wise philosopher is placed as ruler of the utopian state, it is according to the classical natural law the most experienced, virtuous and best citizens who for the common good, and by force of law should govern in the actual state. The virtuous and good citizen appears as the one who cares for the state’s future. The good man is not just the good citizen, but the good citizen who govern in a good society.[19] To become a good and virtuous man, one must live in a good and orderly society.

The main characters of the Laws are the Athenian, Cleinias and McGillis, who in Crete  are discussing what would be the best and most virtuous laws at the same time as they try to understand the laws originating in human nature. The theme is not the tension between man and state, but the practical matter of a formulation of state laws here and now.[20] It is the stranger from Athens, who begins the discussion. He argues that experienced states men at a long day may well find the best laws for the state, and so they begin to ponder about the basis of the laws.

Because laws have divine origin, you might think that they have been justified by a cosmology, but the point is precisely that the Gods perfection is not human, and that laws should apply to the earthly life. Another interpretation is that the laws have their origin in logos. Yet another possibility would be that the laws are derived from the divine and ideal perfection, but at the same time humans are using the ideas in relation to the human reality. One must admit that the divine quest is part of the Platonic political thought and that Plato did not completely detach natural law from the divine reality, and that politics has a divine inspiration because it is important to realize virtue in society. Therefore, there is no conflict between the law and logos, reason and its dissemination in the actual state, even if the law on certain points depending on the situation goes beyond logos.

This view of natural law can be compared to Strauss’ analysis of the Jewish and Islamic philosophy by Farabi and Maimonides.[21] Here it is explicitly about a divine foundation of the law of human society, in which the philosopher has an important role to ensure the correct interpretation of the divine law. Although he takes the side of the Greek philosophy, for example, in his criticism of Carl Schmitt, Strauss believes that the theological-political problem about the law’s origin is extremely important. This is not to ignore the fact that religion is needed to hold together the state, and the state will collapse without a set of values as the foundation for social integration. Perhaps the philosophical prophet who interprets the divine law can function as an alternative to the tyrannical clergyman and thereby mediate between religion and philosophy to ensure that there will not be a complete questioning of the state’s Gods with potential disintegration as a result.[22]

After this discussion of the origin of the law, the question is who will govern in the actual state. Democracy is rejected because the mob does not have the experience and ability to take virtuous and right decisions. It is recommended that the city-state is ruled by a council of experienced wise men who take decisions based on the law, judgment and practical sense. Then is given an estimate of the city-state’s actual organization in the classic areas: Education, production, administration, sports, judiciary and election of judges. The rest of the Laws are about how to regulate these things and not on abstract political theory.[23]

Aristotle’s political philosophy in his Politics continues according to Strauss this project on the best political regime. Aristotle continues Plato’s analyzes by systematically comparing the constitutions of the various regimes in order to identify their advantages and disadvantages. Aristotle’s social science is at once ideal, hermeneutic and empirical.[24] Strauss says that for Aristotle, political philosophy is from the beginning the quest to find the best natural political order in any place and at any time.[25]

It is in a more modern perspective a question of finding the good life at the community level, to define what is good for a given factual political community. In this way, we must identify the community that is the best for the state’s population. Aristotle criticizes more explicitly the notion of an association of citizens in the ideal state. The State unity must not be absolute, and the policy should not include all areas of life. A state is defined in the Politics as a collection of citizens with a certain kind of constitution for a certain time at a certain place, and this means that citizens’ duties will change from state to state, from time to place. The ideal of the best regime is a series of links of friendship according to virtue, judgment and common sense to ensure the good life.

Aristotle also believes that the aristocracy, where it is the best, the most experienced and the wisest who rules, as opposed to democracy, oligarchy and tyranny is the best form of government. It is not whether you are a Democrat or non-Democrat that is the focus of Plato’s, Aristotle’s (and Strauss’) concepts of the best political regime. It is rather about safeguarding the best decisions in a given political order, and here one cannot escape the fact that a democratic majority rule tends to result in loss of practical reason, because it no longer is the best that rules for experience and wisdom, but instead the mediocre. Aristotle criticizes democracy as a state where everyone is made equal, although they are very different in virtue and character. On the other hand, there can be traced an egalitarian aspect of Aristotle’s thinking in the sense that the people who govern in the aristocratic state are equal and free. The government of the wise and experienced politicians can be seen as a limited democracy that can be translated into oligarchy or representative democracy, where the best people in society with practical wisdom discusses the state’s goals and future. This virtuous aristocratic equality is not the same as exists in democratic demagoguery, diversity and mediocrity, because we are talking about the best citizens who are above average in experience, virtue and judgment abilities.

Practical wisdom and political judgment

The question of virtue and justice is developed especially in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle describes judgment and practical wisdom, which are the core concepts of classical political philosophy.[26] The purpose of the Aristotelian ethics is to think about the practical wisdom to form the elites who must be able to reign in the Greek city-state. For Aristotle, man is essentially a political animal, and he gives the practical wisdom great importance to the training of the aristocratic citizen. The aristocrat replaces philosopher-king of Plato, who in reality stands on the border of the state, because he would rather search the philosophical wisdom. And here the philosophical wisdom is on the contrary integrated in the good regents practical sense.

Aristotle discusses the Nicomachean Ethics the way to the good life, both individually and in society: justice, virtues and love of wisdom are pillars of happiness and the objective of the ethics and politics. Happiness is to live with each other in friendship in the just and the good state by the virtues throughout life. A distinction is made between the intellectual and practical virtues; wisdom, intelligence and practical sense towards moderation, temperance, courage and justice, virtue, practiced through the good and righteous deeds. Virtues as “Standards of Excellence” are realized through the experienced dispositions to act in a certain way. As virtue of deliberation, the practical wisdom is at once theoretical and practical. It must ensure the right action in the center between the city-state custom and culture, ideal justice principles and happiness.

The practical wisdom is about how to use a general principle in relation to the particular situation. Therefore, the practical wisdom must be thought of as an art because it deals with the arbitrary and contingent and not in relation to what is necessary as wisdom, science and intelligence. The good construction and the common sense of the good man is the political action art because it comes to applying the general principles of happiness in relation to the particular conditions. The Good Man follows the golden middle way virtue that implies always to find the right center relative to the extremes in a situation. In every situation the middle is different and virtue is reflected in the way the common sense is choosing the right center. In the practical reflection, the subject submits the will of reason to the detection of the right middle of the action, and the good man chooses from this experience center, the middle, and the virtue of moderation.[27]

Justice is understood not only as an idea of man, but as a virtue of action. It is applied directly in relation to the situation of action. As virtue justice is both proportional and egalitarian. You cannot treat unequal people and situations in an equal way. One should, for example, find the proper relationship between children and adults in order to understand justice. This fairness opinion of justice is based, as in Plato, on the fact that there are different justice spheres of society in law, economics, medicine, etc. Here, justice and equality are defined in relation to the natural order of things in that particular sphere, for example, the definition of the distribution of goods is not the same on the hospital as on the free market, and it is not the same goods to be distributed. It is the judge’s job with judgment to find the right middle between the parties involved, and he practices the practical reason and virtue as part of justice. He seeks the proper distribution of wealth from the right proportion and balance conditions to avoid too much and too little. This ensures the good laws of the State, based on the friendship between the virtuous people, a friendship that also applies to the political life and goes beyond the life as a citizen.

Also by Aristotle, one can detect the tension between man and state. Man transcends the state and seeks true happiness in the contemplation of the world of ideas and the intellectual virtues are more important than the practical life of politics.[28] Strauss emphasizes the contradiction between theory and practice in the state as an expression of man’s dual nature. The ethical and political life is pointing beyond itself to the intellectual wisdom. Strauss says that political life is a life in the cave, separated from the life of light of cognition where you know the world of ideas.[29]

The crisis of modernity and classical political philosophy

Based on this analysis of classical political philosophy, the question is how Strauss can make an offer for the solution of the crisis of modernity without falling into flat liberalism or radical conservatism. As I said, modernity crisis is primarily a loss of practical reason because the thinkers of modernity in different waves have more and more rejected the practical wisdom as the basis of political thinking.[30] This crisis of knowledge has led to historicism and positivism in the sciences, which appears as modernity’s two main philosophies. Martin Heidegger’s adherence to Nazism, but also as already demonstrated Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy illustrates this loss of reason in modern political philosophy.

The crisis of modernity is also a cultural and educational crisis.[31] The modern society has forgotten the virtues and classical culture as the real basis for training and shaping of the citizen to the state. The secularized modernity, described by Max Weber, with different value perceptions and different subjectivist conceptions of the good life has made it difficult to talk about a common good life as a guideline for state policy. The individual freedom is in contrast to the common good, and people do no longer respect the virtues of the classical political philosophy and natural law, but put an equality and rights philosophy against the notion of the common good.

It is against this background the big problem, how to avoid tyranny and the totalitarian regime and at the same time how to find the good regime of today’s society. By going back to the classical political philosophy Strauss finds an argument against tyranny. He analyzes Xenophanes’ dialogue Heiron as an attempt to show how tyranny is not an appropriate regime, because it is not a regime that can make people happy.[32] This dialogue between a tyrant and a poet shows that every tyrant will be appreciated by the people, but cannot be the because of his status as a tyrant. Even the tyrant is therefore happy in tyranny. The analysis is based on the question of happiness and the good life and on this basis it shows, that tyranny is a bad regime.

Should we thus draw some implications of Strauss’s political philosophy for today’s practical politics and political practices, it must primarily be made up with the widespread notion of politics as a power struggle and a party political dogfight. Also in today’s political life, we must let our actions and opinions be guided by concern for the common good (Res Publica) and the formation of the best state (Politeia) instead of just wanting to secure its own short-sighted personal or partisan interests. Politics should not be seen as a confrontation of subjective positions where everything can be a basis for negotiation and it should be maintained there could always be a rational and virtuous decision in the political process. It is important to see reason and philosophical reflection as a basis for political decisions, as the best way to ensure the common good.

The reason for the crisis of the modern liberal democracy is also linked to the ideology of equality, where the political culture forgets the difference between the wise, virtuous and the vulgar. In many cases, it is the vulgar and tyrannical, who follow their own interests, rather than the wise, who are in power. To avoid this we need recognition of the virtuous elites as the best rulers. The importance of the liberal constitutional democracy is not the democratic process as such, but that those who govern take the best decisions. The elite is the experienced, sensible politician that stands in contrast to the impulsive, charismatic tyrant.[33]

A minister and a governor should be a person who you can trust and admire for his practical sense. One must be able to trust the minister’s judgment and experience as decision-maker. This ruler type stands in contrast to the vulgar fool who has bartered his post to promote its own interests.

It is also about rediscovering and recognizing citizen virtue as an essential feature of a functioning democracy. Here the individual citizen not just follow their own interests but takes his responsibilities and his obligations to the community very seriously in a commitment for the common good.

Unlike many modern political ideologies that considers everything to be politics – included Carl Schmitt’s radical conservatism that tend to assert that man lives only authentic in the political state of emergency – Strauss’ philosophy includes an important definition of the limits of politics, which also can be applied to modern society. One never becomes a whole person if they do not live outside of public life with his friends in the erotic relationship, in the joy of the theoretical virtues, philosophy and literature. And this private life is also not possible without the good state and this is why the responsible and committed participation in public life must never be forgotten.

To reintroduce the notion of the best regime is a reaction against the reduction of politics to the economy and to the struggle to get the biggest slice of the pie. Instead, the political consideration, deliberation and action must be guided by a philosophical reason and conviction, based on an understanding of society and the whole of humanity. For example, social welfare, education and health cannot just build the economy, but implies a view of humanity and a vision of the citizen’s role in the good political regime.

At the same time, politics must fundamentally have a communitarian starting point where one requires cohesion between citizens and the state and consider the willingness to ensure that cohesion as policy basis. In contrast to other communitarians, emphasizing tradition and the importance of culture in the community,[34] Strauss highlights as shown philosophical reflection on the good life and trans-historical truth in relation to the political life of the state as it characterizes a communitarian view of political philosophy. Therefore, every culture and tradition could include meeting with philosophy’s critical distinction between quality and non-quality.

The political conservatism must however emphasize religion and values as an important communitarian foundation of modern society that can prevent social disintegration. Although “the wise” have understood that certain values cannot be justified philosophically, and are afraid of Nietzsche’s nihilism that may in reality be the truth, they may not say it to the people, the ignorant and vulgar, who should preferably stay in their childhood belief in order to avoid disintegration of society. From the point of view of social utility religion, tradition and values are great importance to social integration – even if they cannot be justified philosophically.

Strauss’ philosophy implies that the modern state must not understand justice as abstract equality, but always in relation to a situation. The concept of spheres of justice is important to include in the understanding of the welfare state, where increased differentiation makes it difficult to apply the same measure of justice in different sectors of society. Justice must be measured in the right proportions according to the context.[35]

Distribution of goods happens in relation to the various concepts of equity in the different spheres of justice. And there is the possibility to develop a complex equality, in which each person is assigned goods with respect to his nature and needs. For example, we can mention special education, health care and honors or services for the virtuous and talented in society.

This is also a criticism of a realistic and positivistic legal understanding that considers law as a function of power and perceive any argument for a particular law as subjective and ideological. Instead, we must restore political judgment as central in the judicial and political decision-making. Judgement was expelled as unscientific by legal realism that wanted to ensure the scientific objectivity and application of rules. Instead, following Strauss we should make the decision guided by an understanding of the nature and wholeness. At the same time, there is need for expansion of the sources of law to better include philosophical beliefs, culture, custom and tradition. Judgement presupposes a truth about the individual case, its nature as it is the good politician’s and lawmaker’s task to bring this to light.

One way to retrain today’s citizen to have and exercise judgment, is the concept of “Liberal Education”,[36] which could address training in classical formation and introduction to the European cultural heritage as an integral part of the education system. At the university, this could for example mean that not only students at the faculty of humanities, but also lawyers, economists, doctors, scientists and future decision-makers got a broader cultural and educational formation. Such a “Bildung” would put them in a position to take more informed decisions, which would be rooted in a view of humanity and imply a conception of the common good. With this we could achieve a higher standard of virtue as the basis for a better society that might help to realize Strauss’ aristocratic ideals as an alternative to the contemporary competition state.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, New York (1989).This is the book where Fukuyama argues that economic liberalism with the end of the cold war has led to the end of history has replaced the political war of ideologies in the struggle of universal history. Instead, liberal democracy has been the dominant ideology with no real alternative.

[3] Heinrich Meier: Die Lehre Carl Schmitts: Vier Kapitel zur Unterscheidung Politischer Theologie und Politischer Philosophie, Stuttgart, (1994): Verlag J.B.Metzler.

[4] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1959), Chicago: Glencoe Press p. 143

[5] Ibid p. 25

[6] Leo Strauss: De la Tyrannie, (1954), Paris: Gallimard p. 46

[7] Ibid p. 4

[8] Ibid p. 24

[9] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 34.

[10] Ibid p. 50

[11] Ibid p. 23

[12] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. pp. 145-46.

[13] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 137

[14] Drew A. Hyland: “The Irony of Plato’s Republic”, Révue de Métaphysique et morale, Paris (1991): PUF. According to Hyland it is human nature that is the source of irony because the erotic in human nature is in tension with the world of ideas.

[15] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 161.

[16] A good example is Sir Karl Poppers critical Plato-interpretation in The Open Society and its enemies, London (1946): Routledge. Here Plato is characterized as the father of all totalitarianism.

[17] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 163.

[18] Ibid. p. 163

[19] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 126-139.

[20] Leo Strass: The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 42.

[21] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Chicago (1959): Glencoe Press.

[22] In Socrates’ Apology this issue is discussed. The philosopher is persecuted by the state, because he will not accept its gods. According to Strauss, this is a modern problem. Nietzsche was persecuted because he pointed out that the gods do not exist. The lack of faith in the state’s values is serious because it ultimately leads to the dissolution of the state. Drury argues in this context that Strauss should be construed as a conservative who has discovered Nietzsche’s truth about the absence of God and morality in the state. The philosopher does not care. He does not see this as a political problem, but for the wise and experienced politician and a good man to govern the state this becomes a problem. He cannot tell the truth to the people, for it would lead to the dissolution of the state. It is therefore the hallmark of the conservative position that it from the point of view of social utilitarianism is very keen to keep religion as a basis for the state. Shada B. Drury: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), London: Macmillan.

[23] Leo Strass, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 38.

[24] S. Salkever: “Aristotle’s Social Science” , Political Theory,  Vol 9, no. 4, (1987), New York: Sage Publications.

[25] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 28.

[26] Aristoteles, Den nikomakiske Etik, French translation, Tricot: Ethique à  Nicomaque, (1987), Paris: Vrin, p. 75.

[27] ibid s. 220.

[28] Malgan: “Aristotle and the Value of Political Participation”, Political Theory, Vol 18, no. 2.

[29] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 43.

[30] Leo Strauss: “ Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Ten Essays by Leo Strauss (1989): Detroit: Wayne State University Press p. 82.

[31] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone. In this book continues Bloom Strauss’ project by making a cultural, critical, intellectual aristocracy analysis of American society, and Bloom considers how consumption-ideology, value nihilism and relativism has destroyed American intellectual life and university system.

[32] Leo Strauss, De la Tyrannie, Paris 1954: Gallimard.

[33] Here it seems that Strauss is inspired by Max Weber’s discussion of charismatic identity and the possibility of a plebiszitär-charismatic domination, where the good manager is opposed to the colorless bureaucrat who heads the government. Weber was worried about that the Weimar Republic because of its constitution could get such a leader. An example of where time is de Gaulle’s status as France’s president. See also Max Weber: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Tubingen (1972): J.B.C Mohr., p. 141.

[34] Alistair MacIntyre: After Virtue, London (1981): Duckwood.

[35] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, New York 1983: Blackwell

[36] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone.

Site-specific Perception. Philosophical reflections on the impact of environment on perception

The question raised here is about the differences in perception between people due to different environmental backgrounds. The assumption is that we learn to perceive and that the environment is essential for this learning. This is discussed by taking a classical philosophical view on perception from Leibniz and Baumgarten’s aesthetics, recently revived in the concept of atmosphere, as proposed by Gernot Böhme. The conclusion points to questions of the consequences of the environment for our perception as well as to the importance of aesthetic education in training perception.

Continue reading Site-specific Perception. Philosophical reflections on the impact of environment on perception

Jacob Dahl Rendtorff, French Philosophy and Social Theory. A Perspective for Ethics and Philosophy of Management (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

It might be argued that a rigorous study in the field of business and management theory could not adopt a pure philosophical perspective. By contrast, the peculiar effort of this book is precisely to present scholars perspectives useful for academic research in the areas of business theory and philosophy of management, without dealing with specific topics of these fields.

Continue reading Jacob Dahl Rendtorff, French Philosophy and Social Theory. A Perspective for Ethics and Philosophy of Management (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

Francesco Giacomantonio, Sociologia dell’agire politico (Rome: Studium, 2014)

 

In his recently published Sociologia dell’agire politico (Sociology of Political Action) Francesco Giacomantonio focuses on the material and cultural conditions that are adversely affecting the possibility for effective political action, where the latter is broadly understood as “the set of all the activities that influence politics or have political repercussions” (16). Notwithstanding the book’s title, in fact, its main concern does not appear to be the study of political action itself, but rather a reflection on the nature and causes of its current crisis.

Giacomantonio understands the analysis undertaken in the book as an exercise in “theoretical sociology”, meaning by this that he does not engage directly with the sociological facts at stake, but tries instead to reconstruct the conceptual coordinates through which such phenomena can be understood and analysed. The central part of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of three leading paradigms that have had an enormous influence on the debate about the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies, as they are expounded in the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek.

 

Bauman’s account is presented by Giacomantonio as the most “apocalyptic” of the three; its dismal description of the “liquid society” cannot be redeemed by the counter-measures Bauman advocates, such as the appeal to personal responsibility and the re-establishment of a public agora, which appear to be vacuous and unfeasible. A more optimistic outlook, Giacomantonio points out, is the one proposed by Habermas. Even if Habermas insists on the depoliticization of the public sphere brought about by late capitalism and on the technocratic turn of the liberal state, his theory of democracy also points to the communicative resources that can still be mobilized in our societies. Giacomantonio also pauses to consider how Habermas tackles the challenge of multiculturalism and the role of religion in the public sphere. Žižek’s position, finally, is presented as a bold call for radical social change and the re-thinking of the very conceptual landscape on which our politics is taking place. Giacomantonio stresses the importance of Zizek’s reflection on the subject, his appeal to the re-politicization of the economic sphere, and his critique of the neo-liberal order.

 

In the final part of the book the author draws from the works of the authors discussed in the previous chapters in order to summarize the major sources of the crisis of political action in our societies. The main focus, here, is on the erosion of a shared social space, and of the common meanings and practices that are needed for individual action to have content and purpose, thus creating a world of “freedom without autonomy” (89). The erosion of a shared social space is connected to the privatization of the public sphere, which leaves individuals isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless, as public intellectuals are relinquishing their role and the leading cultural trends promote what Marcuse would have called a “closing of the universe of discourse” (94). Giacomantonio does not seem to have any ready solutions to this predicament; however, he suggests that a good starting point might consist in the rejection of radical individualism, by “freeing ourselves from egocentrism and utilitarianism” and learning “to be better rather than to have the best” (102). The closing pages of the book also remind us of the importance of imagination in politics, because only through imagination we can open the door to moral, cultural and social progress.

 

Giacomantonio’s reconstruction of the thought of Bauman’s, Hayek’s and Žižek is clear and accurate (only a couple of reservations might be raised, about the idea that Žižek can be taken as “last true heir” of the tradition of the Frankfurt School (84), and what I believe to be an overstatement of the role of religion in Habermas’s account of cohesion in contemporary societies (61-2)). Moreover, Giacomantonio’s choice of Habermas, Žižek and Bauman as guiding references for the critical analysis developed in the book is considered and fruitful; there is no doubt that these three authors deserve attention by whoever wants to reflect on the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies.

 

Still, Giacomantonio’s way of tackling the issue of political agency seems to be somehow off-target. His analysis throughout the book focuses on the social processes that are depriving members of contemporary societies of the psychological and social resources that are needed for individual action to be meaningful, effective and genuinely free. There is no doubt that the erosion of these preconditions for successful individual action is also affecting the chances for constructive political engagement. However, in democratic politics – and indeed, we might argue with Arendt and other eminent thinkers of our tradition, in any kind of politics – political action is always and essentially the product of joint or collective action, rather than individual action. The crisis of politics in our time concerns above all the constitution and the operation of collective political subjects, and focusing on the sociology of individual action, like Giacomantonio does, tends to obscure this important fact about the ontology and the sociology of politics.

 

Giacomantonio’s discussion, then, should be taken as a useful – indeed, necessary – preliminary analysis of the sociological conditions that we need to consider when thinking on the possibility of political action. The study of the modes and sources of present and future political action needs to come next, and should have in view collective action as an essential element of politics.

Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas

 

‘Crisis’ can mean a confrontation between old and new. ‘Crisis’ can mean a rupture with the old ways of thinking and a chance of dislodging rigid ways of thinking, including those in the academy. There is a crisis of a notion of any stable ‘subject-hood’ in which new critical theories and philosophical ideas might also have a place. We could propose ways of looking at ‘crisis’ in gender relations, the arts and the humanities, and the continuing debates on the crisis of the current capitalist practices. Why is it that the latter has so far not produced any real change? A discussion of ‘crisis’ and the ways in which the notion is impacting culture and society might be of interest.

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A reply to the reviewer of “Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica”

As it is written in the foreword, what the book offers is, immediately, an overview on the current status of the moral and political philosophical debate (each chapter is a sort of piece of this mosaic). But reading deeply the book is possible to find, as is normal, a fil rouge, a background thesis, that runs through all the chapters: an attempt to define in a critical way the moral and political framework of the current society, trying to delineate alternatives in the way in which we intend our aggregative forms – especially starting from the idea and the practice of democracy, nowadays reduced into formal mechanisms –, and possible escape lines.

 

As for the quoted authors, as ever happens in the essays, I made a selection – it’s strange having to specifying this. And so, I chose the authors that, for me, are fundamentals and those that are secondary, in the economy of my speech, deepening the first – and the same with the arguments, some are main themes same are collateral analyses for me. And so, I criticized the authors with which I disagree, specifying why – without obscure them from the philosophical scene, for their impact on that –, and I used quotations with which agree, specifying the source – for not assign to me those ideas – but declining them in the economy of my personal speech. And about some mentioned contents of my discourse, I would like to clarify in short at least two important issues. First, Arendt and Jonas sit well together for me because in Arendt is possible to find an indirect but very cogent critique to the naive and dangerous stances of Jonas: the sacralization of biological life, the mythologizing and the normative use of the nature, is at the ground of the Nazi ideology, as Arendt shows speaking about the modern triumph of the anthropological figure of the animal laborans, emblematically represented by Eichmann. Second, to affirm that the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is universal, modern and Western, is not a disclaimer of its advancements – why should it be so is not clear for me – but is a reasoning on another level than that of the socio-political decisions: that of the conceptual background of our society – that contains also its advancements. This critical view is extremely important because permit us to intend our society – and its advancements – not as the only one possible society – like for example in the Eurocentrism or now, we can say, in the “Westerncentrism” – but as a possible society; avoiding so also the theoretical “Westerncentrism” that is given in the reading of authors that are not modern and/or Western with the eyes of a modern and Western person – e.g. the sui generis Popperian reading of Plato, Hegel and Marx.

 

For me too the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography, it is a pity that the publisher has not made, however, as is written in the premise, the footnotes are enriched with the necessary bibliographic details.

Federico Sollazzo, Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica (Rome: Aracne, 2011)

In the first part, Sollazzo tracks recent evolutions in the theoretical and historical understanding of social and political control of human collectivities, such as: (1) “totalitarianism” (17) in the work of Vaclav Havel and his mentor Jan Patocka; (2) “system” (20) in that by Herbert Marcuse; (3) “terror” (25) in Max Horkheimer’s; (4) “stereotyped reasoning” (28) in Theodor Adorno’s; (5) “rationality deficit” (28) in Juergen Habermas’; (6) “empire” (30) in Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s (30); (7) and “culture” according to Pier Paolo Pasolini (34). This initial section is followed by an exposition of the philosophical anthropology of three great minds of the 20th century, namely Arnold Gehlen, Helmuth Plessner and Max Scheler. A common theme is retrieved in their thought about human nature and the human condition, that is, the uniqueness of humankind’s inextricable admixture of biological and psychical elements, which allow the human being to be part of nature as well as to transcend it through its “peculiar” (43) intellectual—for the first two authors—and spiritual—for the third—abilities. The ensuing chapter stresses the crucial role played by the species-wide biological and emotional make-up in providing a valid ground for the establishment of credibly universal philosophical anthropology and ethics. Remarkable is the attention paid to the notion of vital “needs” (47) as a stark and straightforward reminder of our common humanity. The field of ethics is further explored in a chapter devoted to communitarianism as a representative reaction to utilitarian individualism, which fails to acknowledge the deeply interpersonal preconditions for any meaningful human existence.

 

In the second part, Sollazzo explores the issue of totalitarianism with special reference to the seminal work of Hannah Arendt and her ability to perceive the totalitarian threat of numb conformism in modern mass cultures, and not just in the key examples of totalitarian regimes, namely Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. This line of analysis is deepened by means of a discussion of the notion of “bio-power” (84) and of different conceptions of totalitarianism beyond Arendt’s one, such as Marcuse’s, Horkeimer’s and Neumann’s. Sollazzo then returns to Arendt’s work and her study of the anonymous, grey “model citizen” (108) of modern societies, who is incapable of challenging the received views of her socio-political community and participates dutifully in whatever life-destructive systemic horror such received views may entail. This study is followed by a reflection on genuine democracy as Alexis de Tocqueville and Arendt would have it, so that model citizens be not as incapable of Socratic critical reflection as previously discussed. Considerations on democracy are furthered by a presentation of Karl Popper’s ideal of democracy as open society and his profound distrust for any “utopian engineering” (135) that may prevent tolerant coexistence of different worldviews in peaceful conversation with one another. Adorno, Norberto Bobbio and Zagrebelsky are then utiklised to criticise Popper’s seemingly wilful blindness to the darker areas of actual democratic communities, such as techno-scientific “chains” (150) to free human agency, dehumanising “mass conformism” (150), economic “commodification” (150) of human relations—including political ones—and “political apathy” (153). Zagrebelsky’s work is also utilised to assess the issues of social justice and human rights in allegedly democratic societies, whose enduring and entrenched inequalities fail regularly large sectors of the population.

 

The third part of the book opens with a survey of the so-called “rehabilitation of practical reason” in the German-speaking philosophical world of the 1960s and 1970s, especially with reference to Hans-Georg Gadamer and Habermas. The threat to social cohesion and human well-being emerging from pseudo-rational individualism is presented and then addressed in a chapter on leading libertarian thinkers, such as Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek. Bobbio and John Rawls are introduced and presented as attempts to rectify from within the liberal tradition the many weaknesses and blind spots of several libertarian stances. Communitarianism is addressed subsequently as an attempt to rectify them too, though this time from without the liberal tradition. Ferdinand Toennies, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre are the pivotal references in this context. Amartya Sen is used eventually to propose a tolerant, pluralist form of communitarianism that describes cultural identities as inherently diverse, “always in fieri” (212) and analogous to an ever-shifting mosaic requiring the person’s free consent and critical self-reflection. The theme of a species-wide ground for life-enhancing social and political self-organisation is brought back in a chapter devoted to Hans Jonas and his call for human ethical responsibility vis-à-vis the planetary environment, which human ingenuity and techno-scientific advances are threatening as never before in human history. The final chapter outlines the understanding of human alterity in the works by Emmanuel Lévinas, Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida.

 

The book is most erudite and shows how well-versed the author is in the works and terminology of the many thinkers that he cites and presents to the reader. Still, after reading the book, it is not clear what the author wished to accomplish with it, apart from charting a number of interesting issues and related reflections by famous thinkers. In short, the book has no clear thesis to offer. Also, the critical assessment of the thinkers tackled in the book varies considerably, thus a few thinkers are duly presented and equally criticised for what Sollazzo argues to be their theoretical weaknesses (e.g. Jonas), whilst others are just outlined and never criticised (e.g. Havel) or timidly rebuked in a few footnotes (e.g. Arendt). By this lack of critical evenness and courage, Sollazzo comes across as sharing claims by some of the thinkers that he refers to (e.g. Arendt’s negative assessment of the modern political emphasis upon human biological necessity) that do not sit well with those of other thinkers that he includes in his book (e.g. Jonas’ call for immediate global ethical responsibility in the face of the modern techno-scientific threat to the continuation of biological life on Earth). Analogously, it is not clear whether some rare yet conspicuously superficial analyses, such as the one that he provides about human rights (159-65), should be ascribed to him or to the thinkers that he makes use of therein. Specifically, as human rights are concerned, they are reduced to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which is claimed to be “universal, modern and Western” (163), as though there had never been thereafter any advancement, such as the actually binding sister covenants on civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic social and cultural rights on the other; or the pronunciations of the related United Nations’ human rights committes. Finally, the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography.

 

Viorella Manolache (ed.), Centru si margine la Marea Mediterana. Filosofie politica si realitate internationala (Bucharest: Editura ISPRI, 2009)

This journal has proven a wide opening to a great diversity of recurrent themes present now within political sciences. Certain “marginal” areas of interdisciplinary investigation are also present, included in this same broad philosophical view. The volume maintains precisely this type of innovative ambitions and the manner of relating to contemporary tendencies as the journal, hence approaching through its several original studies select newer theoretical concepts adequate to the complexities associated with the research of the chosen theme. These studies are coming from different scientific areas. Estimating the present geo-political research of the Mediterranean community, it endeavours to enter into a dialogue within the Mediterranean scientific community. Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality) accesses scientific contributions from seven countries (Romania, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil, USA, Italy) providing a rich mix of theoretical and philosophical comparative, international and transnational issues, addressed to all who are interested in the contemporary political Mediterranean phenomena. The three constant investigated dimensions are placed into a dynamic formula described by the three parts of the volume: Political philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin; Cultural approaches on the Mediterranean Margin and International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The volume is integrated within a theoretical landscape and is justified by the anticipative answer offered by the authors to a series of variables with which the imperative of the current European politics operates, of the “maps projecting the macro regions” – a decentralized space of cooperation. The volume anticipates the conclusions of the European Council (June 24, 2011) which counts especially on the coincidence of culture and creative industries, on the capitalization of historical, linguistic and, in general, cultural diversity, and also on the application of a macro-regional strategy. All these dimensions illustrate the potential of catalyst of the “Union for the Mediterranean area”.

 

The volume’s approach indicates significant insights, pre-figurations of the European imperatives correlated with the analysed theme, with a double effect: the analysis of the international implications of the Mediterranean space and of the considerations concerning soft power; and a withdrawal within the philosophical, theoretical and political framework that configure the dimensions of this profile. The approach is explained in the introductory chapter – Political Philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin.

 

According to Abderrazzak Essrhir, the idea of the centre is the indicative of the systematic invention of a peripheral space – racial, geographical, religious, cultural – resulting in a binary opposition that is the outcome of reciprocal experiences between the centre and its assumed periphery. It is in this very context that the relations between the East and the West can rightly be appreciated to have always been conducted, marked by conquest, demystification, subjection, or colonial confinement. The centre assumes in this perspective a position wherein it perceives itself as the nucleus of authority and power, the source of emanation of knowledge, the cradle of high culture and civilisation. The margin, as a consequence, turns out to be a mere indication of that “positioning is best defined in terms of the limitations of a subject’s access to power.” It is, in this respect, perceived, and indeed made to be, as the consumer, the dependent, the subaltern, or the anarchic space. This type of centre-margin binary opposition is multi-dimensional in the sense that the centre, conscious of its identity, systematically locates and confines its margin by devising a set of strategic practices such as othering, ethnic categorisation, subjugation, and discrimination (Abderrazzak Essrhir).

 

For Abdenbi Sarroukh, the question that arises is whether the new U.N partnership will contribute to the blossoming of at least a positive Mediterranean pluralism that goes beyond the borders of the nationalism that is still recast in ethnic identities, so as to reshape them to conform to the new cultural exigencies. The author refers to the universal values that tend to homogenise specificities and the spirit of communities that are irreducible and resist being explained away by the power of discourse from the point of view of the dominating centre.

 

The historical registration appears as architecture and even as a film of the Mediterranean space diving into the discourse of postmodernity as post-tradition, either rebuilding the cultural referential of the marginal discourse of the Mediterranean space – a system of indexes, emblems, constituents of a typical language that asks for deciphering, first and foremost politically speaking, in order to deserve to be termed of a Mediterranean polis  (Viorella Manolache), or the investigation of the communicational ethical and political implications of this fascination of the interlocutor via Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard or Simon Critchley (Henrieta ?erban).

 

The chapter Cultural Approaches on the Mediterranean Margin reaffirms the dependence of the imaginary on the mise-en-place of a very special Mediterranean syntax. The relationships between the “full and signifying forms” and the “determinations” of symbolical images, conferring them a “particularizing function” are emphasized (Gheorghe Manolache), within an analysis that employs essential (proto)types (present in the works of Eugen Lovinescu, Anton Naum – e.g. the Don Juanic character, Ulysses –, or Vasco da Gama). These profiles express the metaphoric idea that the waters of the Mediterranean space have a vocation of refrain: they are always the ones which bring boats, and invite the analyst to imagine Ulysses abandoned on the rocky shores of Portugal in distress; one sees Vasco da Gama directing his ships and people on the warm and quiet waters of the Mediterranean Sea, with an impact on the symbolic-cultural map of the countries washed by the Mediterranean waters. What remains behind is precisely what should happen: a silent revolt of the water and then, the numerous endless tides, the tides which charmed the sovereigns and awarded gold and glory, the waters of the bereaved bride named melancholy (Diana Adamek).

 

The philosophical and metaphorical level is completed by a more investigative and practical level in International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea that assesses the Mediterranean space as one of the important geopolitical and geostrategic pivots in world history. The geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean realm is not quite constant along the entire history of the region. For a while, the geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean decreased, because the “center” of the world gradually glided to the Atlantic. But, starting with the opening stages of the Cold War, the geostrategic importance of the Mediterranean realm grew again, a trend which is still maintained to a certain extent nowadays as well, in the context of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ and of the global war against terror. Other important events, connected with the war in the Caucasus region, prove again – similarly to the era of the Cold War – how important is for the West to control the Mediterranean Sea, and how ambitious post-communist Russia already is on the international arena (Florin Diaconu).

 

In this analytical key, the international realities operating in the Mediterranean space raise the question of how culture and identity contribute to the lasting peace, facing the geopolitical context and the efforts of a generation of intellectuals who have implemented this idea by building a unique and successful structure such as the European Union. It is thus important to examine the possibility of designing a community of security in the Mediterranean region through economic growth, with the contribution of this regional culture, without which any construction will be only short-lived and deprived of depth (Lucian Jora).

 

Beyond this snapshot of the main dimensions of the volume Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality), one can easily identify the need to re-evaluate in a more complex light the Mediterranean space, accepting a cultural and reconciliatory mental map – a matrix where the Mediterranean space does not cease to provide to an equal extent, both philosophies and realities.

 

Joseph V. Femia and Alasdair J. Marshall (eds.), Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (Surrey, England and Burligton, USA: Ashgate, 2012)

The volume opens with a jewel introduction. It contextualizes Pareto historically and it offers the big pictures in which to fit all the pieces of Pareto’s intellectual production. Pareto was an engineer involved with the running the newly nationalized Italian railroad system, but his claim to fame is for his sociological work. He wrote hundreds of pamphlets calling for change, free trade, small government, and pacifism, all of which fell flat. And “his youthful idealism soon gave way to skepticism, even cynicism, about human potential” (p. 2) so that today he is best known for his theory of human rigidity and inflexibility which make the world fundamentally unchangeable. His mathematical training and skills made him a professor of economics at Lausanne University (1893-1900), but his discontent with the model of a rational homo economicus led to his interest in and research on human irrationalities. During a time in which disciplines fought to establish their boundaries, Pareto broke them and refused to be confined in any one. For him comprehension of the complexity of human behavior came from the complexity of a boundless knowledge.

 

The rest of the book reflects the introductory claims. The first chapter, “Pareto and the Elite”, by John Scott, describes the not always successful balance of an open definition of elite that Pareto offers us. This analysis smoothly continues in Chapter 2, “Talents and Obstacles: Pareto’s Morphological Schema and Contemporary Social Stratification” (Francois Nielsen). Pareto’s empiricism allows him to analyze data from across the world and across time and see patterns in the wealth elites. Wealth is not distributed normally, but more “like an arrow”. Regardless of time and place, income inequality seems to be a natural and inevitable pattern: 80 percent of income is distributed among 20 percent of the population. This 80-20 distribution seems to be a constant pattern in many natural phenomena, from elites to genes, not just income distribution. This raises a question, not raised by the author, but that any post-2011 reader may ask: does ‘Occupy Wall Street” know about Pareto? And assuming that by some miracle, Occupy Wall Street is successful in changing the distribution of wealth in rich societies, will it be a sustainable change? Or will we move back, inevitably, to the arrow-shaped income distribution that Pareto kept finding in his data? The inability of society to change, to be stuck with certain patterns or with certain equilibria becomes a major theme in Pareto’s thought. While some of his contemporary sociologists and political scientists would theorize beneficial changes in society, Pareto focuses on dysfunctional evolutions and sticky points where societies may be unable to get out of detrimental conditions. So Chapter 3 is the chapter where Charles Powers describes “The Role of Sticky Points in Pareto’s Theory of Social Systems”.

 

The empirical and pessimistic eye of Pareto is also present in his visions of political theory, as Joseph V. Femia describes in Chapter 4—“Pareto, Machiavelli, and the Critique of Ideal Political Theory”. A scientific understanding of human behavior requires that we look at human beings as real and not ideal creatures. This is why Pareto leans on the realism of Machiavelli, rather than the idealism of Kant, in his theories. And this realism, when combined with modern risk analysis, allows us to link Pareto to a variety of cultural and psychological patterns widely recognized and accepted today, as Alasdair Marshall and Marco Guidi demonstrate in Chapter 5—“The Idea of a Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty: Insight from Pareto”.

 

The relevance of Pareto in today’s debates and research agenda is pushed further by John Higley and Jan Pakulski in their chapter on “Pareto’s Theory of Elite Cycles: A Reconsideration and Application” (Chap. 6). They apply what may seem a vague theory of elite to the UK and the US governing elites of the twentieth century. It is unclear whether Pareto works or not when applied today. This question mark comes at a perfect time in the volume. So far one is exposed to the marvel of Pareto’s thinking, its correctness and applicability. One may be starting to question whether Pareto was this infallible intellect, underappreciated in his time and also in ours, who deserved a much larger role because of his continuous correctness. Higley and Pakulski remedy that sensation and bring back the fallibility, or at least imperfections, in a genius’ work. I see their chapter as sort of refreshing watershed, as it is followed by two other chapters more prone to see some of the deficiencies of Pareto. Alban Bouvier shows how Pareto may be more indebted to J.S. Mill than he is willing to admit—or than his readers are willing to admit (Chap. 7: “Pareto, Mill and the Cognitive Explanation of Collective Beliefs: Unnoticed ‘Middle-range Theories’ in the Trattato”). Similarly, Giorgio Baruchello shows how Pareto may be more indebted to Aristotle than to Plato in his understanding of the role of rhetoric.  Interestingly enough, in these two chapters, as well as in some preceding ones, there is subtle emphasis on the importance of language in communicating effectively and how Pareto may not have been gifted with it: a possible reason for the fact that his popularity does not necessarily reflects his contributions.

 

The breadth of Pareto’s understanding, or his willingness to accept the complexity of human behavior, is returned to in the last chapter of the volume (“Pareto’s manuscript on Money and the real Economy”) where Micheal McLure describes how Pareto rejects the quantity theory of money and is willing to integrate money in the general equilibrium model of Leon Walras, despite the unwillingness of the discipline to bridge the monetary and the real analysis.

 

The volume is an impressive and yet balanced testament of the breadth and stature of Pareto. Pareto does come out as a rounded Renaissance man, who for all that is pessimistic about the possibility of human improvement. He does come out as a scholar willing to break all disciplinary barriers and one who, as a consequence, stands alone. And probably today and more so in the future, when we also realize that many of the existing disciplinary boundaries are artificial constraints that limit our creativity and intellectual development, we will come to appreciate Pareto more. This volume is a step in that direction. 

 

Beyond Subjectivity. Levinas, Kierkegaard and the Absolute Other

 

However, since the thinkers both passed away, there are two possibilities: to side with one of them, thus criticizing the other, or to analyze their writings, in order to individuate analogies and differences from a third perspective. I would be a very bad lawyer, so I prefer to be a peace officer, opting for the second choice. I will show that, notwithstanding the deep divergences separating Levinas and Kierkegaard, there are also clear points in common, that the former (and perhaps even the latter) would never have admitted. The tension of subjectivity beyond itself, toward Infinity, will be the key point of their encounter.

1. The refusal of impersonal totality

First of all, Levinas and Kierkegaard are thinkers of singularity. Their philosophical reflection starts with a critique to Hegel and to the universal Spirit. The latter manifests itself in history, knowledge and ethics. The so-called Totality involves all the aspect of human life, considering individuals as parts of a greater plan, the immanent becoming of the Spirit toward the highest awareness of Itself.1 Each man is considered as a necessary, but only functional element of a super-individual entity, whose norms rule thinking and action.

Kierkegaard strongly lashes out against Hegel and his oblivion of singularity. It does not mean that the former denies the existence of universal principles of knowledge and ethics. As a matter of fact, societies are ruled by norms that everyone is expected to follow. One of these norms is the respect of human life, especially of the members of one’s family.

When Abraham, in Fear and Trembling, is commanded by God to kill his own son, he falls into a deep crisis.

There is no higher expression for the ethical in Abraham’s life than that the father shall love the son. The ethical in the sense of moral is entirely beside the point. Insofar as the universal was present, it was cryptically in Isaac, hidden, so to speak, in Isaac’s loins, and must cry out with Isaac’s mouth: Do not do this, you are destroying everything.2

Abraham knows that the sacrifice of Isaac means both a transgression of Jewish ethics and an unbearable suffering for the lost of his only child. God wants His gift back, without giving any reason. Abraham, a man of faith, obeys to the divine command and prepares his son for the sacrifice. His knife is ready to get dirty of his own blood. God then decides to hold the hand of the patriarch, who has proved his obedience enough.

Notwithstanding the reassuring epilogue, Abraham makes his choice for God’s sake and despite ethics. Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in Fear and Trembling, justifies this decision as the highest expression of singularity. Faith is defined as a paradoxical push, according to which “the single individual is higher than the universal” and “determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to absolute by his relation to the universal”3.

The highness of singularity is then due to its relation to the Absolute. Totality and God are the two extremes among which the individual takes place. To follow the former or the latter is due to a choice.4 The weight of each alternative is different: faith requires a leap, an act of courage and will directed to the highest task of a human being, ethics is a renounce to a real subjectivity. Shortly, the utmost duty of a person is to become singular, which requires one to be a believer.

Even if Silentio does not understand the movements of faith, because he does not experience them, he sees them through other men’s actions. The example of Abraham, and of other knights of faith, is the expression of a path toward infinity and real happiness.5 Silentio, talking about the story of the patriarch, admits the impossibility to know the secret of his interiority. He describes the experience of another man, without understanding it, without grasping the relation between the latter and God. Here two important aspects come out: the first is the irreducibility of an individual to another, the second is the uniqueness of the relation to Infinity.

Levinas seems to forget both when he criticizes Kierkegaard in Difficult Freedom and Proper Names. He denies every commitment of the latter with Jewish philosophy. First of all, the concept of faith as a leap, as a decision of free will, has to be excluded. Judaism believes in the Torah, in the law belonging to the religious tradition.6 Secondly, Levinas reproaches Kierkegaard to put religion above ethics. According to the former, the latter is guilty of the amoralism of Nietzsche and other contemporary thinkers, who philosophize with the hammer, regardless of everything.7

Defining ethics as belonging to Totality means confusing the tyranny of the Same with the one-for-the-other, the pre-original push of first philosophy. If the faith was an act of freedom, it would be considered prior to responsibility. And the latter is, in Levinas’ thought, the principal feature of ethics.

Subjectivity is in that responsibility and only irreducible subjectivity can assume a responsibility. That is what constitute the ethical. 8

Levinas does not agree with the concept of ethics expressed by Silentio in Fear and Trembling and proposes another view, which is not in contrast with religion. The author of Difficult Freedom is right in underlining the differences between Jewish tradition and Kierkegaard’s thought, but he seems to ignore what the latter writes in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Here another pseudonym, Climacus, expresses his concept of ethics. If becoming a subject is the highest duty of a human being, as it was said before, it is what both ethics and religion ask him. While objective thought, and totality, demand the individual to become an observer, giving birth to an impersonal ethics, subjective thought does not claim to grasp external truth but inner one. Ethics is present everywhere God is, in the historical process as in the secret of inwardness.9 However, the individual cannot have a perfect knowledge of the former as he has of the latter. According to both ethics and religion, the man has to become a subject.

Therefore, says the ethical, dare, dare to renounce everything, including this loftily pretentious and yet delusive intercourse with world-historical contemplation; dare to become nothing at all, to become a particular individual, of whom God requires everything, without your being relieved of the necessity of being enthusiastic; behold, that is the venture! But then you will also have gained that God cannot in all eternity get rid of you, for only in the ethical is your eternal consciousness; behold, that is the reward! 10

Even if Levinas has read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, criticizing the “becoming subject” of the individual,11 he does not consider that religion here agrees with ethics. He seems to ignore that Kierkegaard always writes through pseudonyms and that every pseudonym has a singular perspective, which never coincides with the perspective of another pseudonym. This is why Silentio and Climacus have different views of ethics and religion. What Climacus says seems to be more detailed and, perhaps, similar to Kierkegaard’s thought: he underlines the difference between objective and subjective ethics. While the former expresses totality, the latter belongs to singularity.

Subjective ethics is very close to Levinas’ one, since the individual is seen in his uniqueness of election. He emancipates from totality and objectivity, looking for his principles in relation to God, to Infinity. The criticism of Hegelian thought is strong both in Levinas and Kierkegaard, thus leading to singularity and to a responsibility which cannot be transferred to anyone else.

The philosophers both contest the absorption of the Other in the Same and state the necessity of an individual ethical answer. They are, generally, against every impersonal system, even if Levinas does not recognize this aspect in Kierkegaard’s thinking. Accusing the latter of violence and amoralism seems really unjustified.12

Anyway, Levinas is not always severe with his predecessor. He appreciates Kierkegaard’s scepticism towards objective truth and the immanence of thought. Actually, in the Postscript, Climacus points out the limits of disciplines as mathematics or history, which are inevitably incomplete and make the subject accidental. Becoming an observer deprives the latter of its individuality, whose existence is wholly indifferent.13 Levinas makes the same criticism to Husserl’s intentionality, which sees the ego as an impersonal “who”. The immanence of thought, the sleep of il y a (“there is”), is the greatest alienation for a human being. He becomes an individual only when he is independent from theoretical activity.14

Being subjective is thus a necessary task for both philosophers. It implies a separation from universal knowledge and, furthermore, a relation to absolute alterity. Kierkegaard states that subjective truth involves a passion of the infinite. What really matters is not the correspondence between the thought and the object, that is the idea of God and God Himself. Subjective thought is focused on inwardness, on the relation between God and the ego. Subjective truth is nothing else than faith. Objectively, it is a paradox and implies uncertainty.15 However, Kierkegaard gives it the highest value and Levinas clearly appreciates it.

Thus Kierkegaard brings something absolutely new to European philosophy: the possibility of attaining truth through the ever-recurrent inner rending of doubt, which is not only an invitation to verify evidence, but a part of evidence itself. I think that Kierkegaard’s philosophical novelty is in his idea of belief. Belief is not, for him, an imperfect knowledge of truth, a truth without certainty, a degradation of knowledge.16

Doubt implies a continuous retreat from certainty, presumed by the right sciences and historical knowledge. It pushes toward the pursuit of something else, whose existence is not proved. Doubt is inseparable from belief, from subjective truth. Objectively, it is an expression of an imperfect knowledge, while, subjectively, it is the expression of truth itself. The uncertainty of the latter implies justification, or even silence.17 The choice of “Silentio” as a pseudonym for Fear and Trembling reflects the impossibility of Abraham to communicate his behaviour to his people. Subjective truth is an individual experience, requiring a relation with an absolute and unknowable alterity.

The uncertainty of faith does not imply either degradation or negativity. The same can be said about the idea of God in Levinas’ philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, the Infinite in the finite causes a breach in theoretic intentionality, overflowing every concept. Human thought is imperfect, because it is incapable of containing God. It does not mean that the perfect (infinite) is a negation of the imperfect (finite), but that the perfect transcends the imperfect. The idea of Infinity is then positive: it is not a lack of relation, but a relation to the absolutely distant.18

This relation, according to both Kierkegaard and Levinas, cannot be expressed with an objective knowledge. Turning to transcendence means separating from universal thought and becoming a subject. Furthermore, recognizing one’s own individuality means, at the same time, recognizing the irreducibility of the other person.

Even if the philosophers agree on this general statement, there are some differences separating them. While Kierkegaard is more concerned for the subject, Levinas gives priority to the other. According to the former, truth is subjectivity because it is focused on individual experience: “that every human being is such an entity existing for himself, is a truth I cannot too often repeat”19. It implies that one is able to know one’s inwardness, one’s own existence, but is unable to grasp alterity.20 The irreducibility of the subject is the condition of the irreducibility of the other.

The author of Totality and Infinity thinks in the opposite way: the irreducibility of the other is prior to the individuation of the self. While Kierkegaard focuses only on the separation of the ego from totality, Levinas has two concerns: the individuation of the subject and the irreducibility of the other to the violence of the ego. Thinking through intentionality and acting through free will are means of power on the other person. This is why Levinas puts responsibility before freedom and the other before the self.21

The subject, in Kierkegaard, follows its own will: the leap of faith is an act of freedom. It does not mean that life involves egoism, since the other person is important. The relation to God does not make sense without a commitment to the neighbour.22 Levinas does not say that the subject is not free, but that responsibility precedes will. At this point, the subject is considered in a passive acceptation (“subject to”), not as an “I”, but as a “me”.23

The priority of the other on the self is what differentiates Levinas from Kierkegaard. That aside, they both refuse impersonal totality, conceived as a theoretical and/or ethical system. They also assert the relation to Infinity as a modality of subjective uniqueness, that leads to recognize the irreducibility of the other person.

2. The irreducibility of the Infinite

Another point in common between Levinas and Kierkegaard is the view of Infinity itself. It coincides with God, who is absolutely Other and distant from the subject.

Precisely because there is the absolute difference between God and man, man expresses himself most perfectly when he absolutely expresses the difference. 24

Kierkegaard’s thought is extraordinary. This sentence places him in the middle of Christian tradition and contemporary philosophy. The author of Fear and Trembling never hides his protestant culture and concern for the life of faith. Anyway, his thought is not strictly theological, but primarily existential. The relation to Infinity, apart from its religious meaning, gives the highest sense to individual life. It does not matter if God exists or not, if He is a supreme being or something else. This is a concern of observers, of objective thinkers. What is really important is the relation between the subject and the divine, the finite and the infinite. Turning to transcendence, to the absolutely Other, is the only way for the individual to be itself. God is distant and irreducible to the subject, but, at the same time, extremely close. Dealing with infinity means dealing with one’s inwardness, with one’s utmost secret (Deus in interiore homine).

This secret cannot be communicated, only justified or expressed with silence. Saying the difference means exactly this: going beyond thought and language, thus facing incomprehension. The only way to express difference is manifesting Infinity in a finite existence.

Becoming subjective means becoming an extraordinary being, in the middle of worldly immanence and divine transcendence.25 The individual is called by God to follow a vocation in everyday life, to be a witness of His will. It implies going against the universal systems of thought and ethics, against an established order, to affirm individuality and follow what is asked to inwardness.

Notwithstanding the impossibility to grasp Infinity, the finite being answers to its call. The relation between the two goes beyond ontology and leads to ethics (not the universal one, but the one following religion). Infinity manifests itself through the evidence of a singular existence, so that the latter is, at the same time, the object of transcendence and the condition for its incarnation.26 There is a sort of exchange between Infinity and a finite being: the latter gives space to the former through transfiguration, while the former knows itself through the gaze of absolute alterity.27 Transfiguration (Forklarelse) is not an explanation (Forklaring), but an expression without words, recalled by the witness of faith.

The separation between man and God, that initially causes anxiety and a sense of alienation, becomes a push towards one’s own existence. When Abraham raises the knife over Isaac, he is answering to the divine call, even if he does not understand it. Leaving aside his people’s ethics and his sadness for the lost of the only child, he directs his free will toward the will of God. Abraham expresses Infinity through a finite action. And, when his hand is drawn back by a new command, he rejoices. He has obeyed and, at the same time, his son is alive. The epilogue of the story gives sense to the choice of Abraham: only through the paradox of the patriarch’s action the goodness of God is revealed. The passion for divinity, that pushes the individual toward an incomprehensible choice, leads to transfiguration. Infinity is expressed through the existence of a finite being.

Even according to Levinas, the distance between the finite and the infinite is overwhelming, though the latter is inside the former. The subject is separated from God and lives an independent life. It does not need anything else, but feels a tension inside. The relation between the finite and the infinite is Desire, which is not directed to fulfilment, but to absolute alterity.

Desire is absolute if the desiring being is mortal and the Desired invisible. Invisibility does not denote an absence in relation; it implies relations with what is not given, of which there is no idea. Vision is an adequation of the idea with the thing, a comprehension that encompasses. Non-adequation does not denote a simple negation or an obscurity of the idea, but – beyond the light and the night, beyond the knowledge measuring beings – the inordinateness of Desire. Desire is desire for the absolutely other. 28

This tension towards the absolutely Other is primarily affective. It goes beyond the limits of thought and the adequation of the object to its idea. The Desire of Infinity originally belongs to subjectivity, which is affected by transcendence in an exceptional way. It is the trace of absence, of otherwise than being. It is called illeity (from the latin ille, “he”) and is nothing else but the mark of an original creation. It cannot be grasped by thought, because it goes beyond ontology and does not imply the existence of the creator. It is a semantic ambiguity, what unsays itself without negating. The trace of Infinity cannot thus be represented, since there is nothing in common between the subject and God.29 Levinas’ concept of transcendence refuses theology and every interpretation of the man as representing God. The affective relation to an absolute alterity, paradoxical and impossible to be explained in words, thus unites both Levinas and Kierkegaard.

However, the former does not agree with the latter, when he describes the nature of the metaphysical desire. First of all, it has nothing to do with need or passion. The subject feels a tension to Infinity when its separation is complete: the ego is wholly atheist and its material needs are satisfied by the external world (“without separation there would not have been truth; there would have been only being”30). The Desire of God is not looking for fulfilment, but pushes the subject to ethics. The command of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of moral action and establishes freedom on responsibility.31

Levinas’ desire of Infinity is thus very different from Kierkegaard’s passion of Infinity. First of all, the latter has its root in anxiety, the former in responsibility. The revelation of God strikes Levinas’ subject when it is quiet and satisfied, pushing it towards the other person. Kierkegaard’s individual, instead, is troubled by doubt and looks for the unity with Infinity. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s passion is oriented towards activity, Levinas’ desire to passivity. Even if they are both sources of morality, the former is based on freedom, the latter on responsibility, which precedes freedom itself.

Shortly, the infinite is, according to both the thinkers, absolutely different from the finite. The latter is moved by the desire of the former, even if the authors do not agree on its nature: the tension is active and passionate for Kierkegaard, passive and responsible for Levinas. However, the desire of Infinity leads, according to both, to the ethical/religious behaviour.

3. From the absolute Other to the singular other

The desire of Infinity is that which primarily constitutes the subject. However, according to Levinas and Kierkegaard, it is not enough for the fulfilment of individual existence. Being subjective means, at the same time, put in practice one’s tension to ethics, whose direction is indicated by the divine command. The relation to the absolute Other thus leads to the relation to the singular other.

Levinas accuses Kierkegaard of transcending the ethical stage and ignoring the other person for the sake of religion.32 He seems not to have read the Works of Love, where the neighbour is essential for the life of faith: “the single individual is committed in the debt of love to other people”33. Stating the irreducibility of the subject and of the other person is not enough for Kierkegaard. It could lead to an egoistic life, where the relation to Infinity would be purely ascetical. The love towards the other person, instead, is a commitment that cannot be avoided.

Levinas is the philosopher of alterity par excellence, since the relation to the other, both singular and absolute, is constitutive of the subject. And this relation implies a radical view, that is the impossibility for the I to exercise its power on the other person. Even if the latter can be partially reduced to phenomenality or submitted to freedom, there is something escaping the grasp of the ego. When the subject is wholly constituted as separated, the other person reveals, through the Face, the command of Infinity.

Freedom is then inhibited, not as countered by a resistance, but as arbitrary, guilty, and timid; but in its guilt it rises to responsibility. […] The relation with the Other as a relation with his transcendence – the relation with the Other who puts in question the brutal spontaneity of one’s immanent destiny – introduces into me what was not in me.34

Immanence is considered brutal, because it submits the individual to the anonymity of Totality. The violence of thought and freedom are nothing but expressions of the tyranny of the Same. The encounter with the other person makes the subject aware not only of its own individuality (already discovered in the atheistic separation), but even of its own uniqueness. The transcendence of the Face is a transfiguration, not an incarnation, of the transcendence of God. The call of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of ethics, pushing the subject to responsibility. The latter cannot be assumed by anybody else, it is the sign of a uniqueness in election. The transcendence undoes the deepest core of the ego with an unavoidable assignation.35

Ethico-religious life is then directed by the divine call to the other person. Both Levinas and Kierkegaard see absolute alterity as directed towards singular alterity. It is a threefold relation, whose terms are the subject, God and the other person. However, the two thinkers have different views about its modality.

Kierkegaard thinks of the subject as directly relating to God, who is the very link between the self and the other: “in love for the neighbor, God is the middle term. Love God is above all else; then you also love the neighbor and in the neighbor every human being.”36 There is not any mediation between the finite and the infinite. Paradoxically, the mediation is between the finite ego and the finite other. The relation to Infinity is then primary, the real condition of the encounter with the other person.

Levinas thinks exactly in the opposite way. Even if the infinite is in the finite as a trace of creation, one has to meet the other to be aware of illeity. The middle term is, in this case, not God, but the other person.37 Singular alterity is the place where absolute alterity reveals itself. The call to responsibility happens simultaneously to the encounter of the Face. The phenomenal dimension of the other man refers to what transcends phenomenon itself. The paradox is that, without seeing the finite, it is impossible to relate to Infinity. Kierkegaard and Levinas describe the threefold relation among the subject, God and the other in two opposite, but equally paradoxical ways: according to the former, the finite needs the infinite to relate to the finite, according to the latter, the finite needs the finite to relate to the infinite.

Other differences between the two philosophers concern their general view on the subject and on the other. These poles are both important, but, as it was stated before, Kierkegaard gives priority to the former, Levinas to the latter. The author of Totality and Infinity takes the risk of alienating the subject, while his predecessor tends to fall into solipsism.

In Fear and Trembling, for instance, subjectivity experiences its vocation without being understood. Abraham, going against the ethics of his people, feels a tension between his behaviour and the external judgement. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith cannot help but feel a deep solitude.

His behaviour leads him to detach himself from the system of needs of his community, in order to follow his vocation. He is extraordinary and, for this reason, runs the risk of being misunderstood. The “tribunal of the world” condemns his actions, which are oriented to please the “tribunal of God”.38 And, since the former is always there and the latter does not need him, the individual is always on the verge of falling into the abyss of nothing.

What has been said about ethico-religious behaviour is valid also for subjective thinking, well described in the Postscript.

The reflection of inwardness is the subjective thinker’s double reflection. In thinking, he thinks the universal, but as existing in this thinking, as assimilating this in his inwardness, he becomes more and more subjectively isolated.39

The risk of solitude is then unavoidable. Even if the individual thinks to universality, he is not an abstract entity. He is a singular and concrete being, whose thought cannot be separated from his existence. It does not imply subjectivism, because the truth of an object does not depend from the belief of the subject. It is possible to have a general concept of how a human being thinks, since it is a matter of observation. The latter implies the possibility of communication and is not submitted to anxiety or other emotional states. This saves Kierkegaard’s philosophy from the extremes of solipsism, subjectivism and irrationality.40 However, subjective truth is more important than objective one. The highest task of a human being is not becoming an observer, but becoming subjective: one has to focus primarily on the relation between oneself and the object, that depends on the perception of one’s own inwardness.

Levinas, on his side, is worried about the violence of subjective thought and freedom. This is why he develops an asymmetrical ethics and puts the other above the I. The latter is called by the Infinite to a pre-original and unavoidable responsibility. This election makes the subject wholly unique, but is connected to a risk of alienation.

The subject in responsibility is alienated in the depths of its identity with an alienation that does not empty the same of its identity, but constrains it to it, with an unimpeachable assignation, constrains it to it as no one else, where no one could replace it.41

In Otherwise Than Being, the very core of the subject is undone by the other, who is inside the ego as ipseity. It is an expression of Levinas’ mature thought, where ethics is took to an extreme and identity is destroyed from inside. In Totality and Infinity, instead, the risk of alienation is avoided, because ipseity is still a nucleus of genuine egoism.42

Levinas, as much as he strives to save the subject from alienation, gives way to it in his mature thought. Kierkegaard, on the other side, is able not to fall in solipsism, but is on the edge of a cliff. Focusing on the subject or on the other leads the two thinkers to opposite forms of extremism. Notwithstanding this and the modal differences, they are united by a threefold view of the relation between the finite and the infinite: the subject (finite) relates to God (infinite), who leads it toward the other person (finite).

4. A lifelong suffering

The last aspect of the relation between the infinite and the finite in Levinas and Kierkegaard is an unavoidable suffering of the subject. The latter, in its tension towards God, cannot help but experience a pathos, inextricably connected to the conscience of its own limits.

Individual existence is, according to Kierkegaard, a synthesis of the finite and the infinite. It is the place where transcendence reveals itself through the actions of an exceptional singularity. The subject is thus in the middle between its own needs as a worldly entity and the tension to go beyond the systems regulating these needs and their satisfaction. Becoming subjective means living in this world and striving for another world. The individual who follows his vocation knows already what his priority is: he has to renounce to satisfy his needs, when they hinder the pursuit of eternal happiness.43

It is not a matter of doing something and avoiding something else. The tension to Infinity is not only a limit to hedonism or to universal ethical life. It completely changes the existence of an individual, orienting it to that which is always there. A finite need disappears according to the subjective mood or to its satisfaction, while Infinity is eternal. It does not matter if it exists in an ontological sense, because it is constitutive of the individual and transcends his inwardness.

The choice of a religious life, of following “that which is always there”, causes an unavoidable pathos.

But suffering as the essential expression for existential pathos means that suffering is real, or that the reality of the suffering constitutes the existential pathos; and by the reality of the suffering is meant its persistence as essential for the pathetic relationship to an eternal happiness. It follows that the suffering is not deceptively recalled, nor does the individual transcend it, which constitutes a retreat from the task […] Viewed religiously, it is necessary […] to comprehend the suffering and to remain in it, so that reflection is directed upon the suffering and not away from it.44

The reality of suffering implies the persistence of the tension to Infinity. God is constitutively inside the individual, but following His will is a choice. Who pursues eternal happiness cannot avoid suffering and has to remain in it. The voluntary component of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is here strongly evident.

Levinas’ thought, on the other side, refuses the power of free will in relation to Infinity.

But giving has a meaning only as a tearing from oneself despite oneself, and not only without me. And to be torn from oneself despite oneself has meaning only as a being torn from the complacency in oneself characteristic of enjoyment, snatching the bread from one’s mouth. […] Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood.45

The suffering of the subject does not depend on a choice, but happens “despite oneself” and comes from one’s original constitution. Being sensible means being permeated by the other in the fibres of one’s own skin. The divine command, which urges upon responsibility for the other person, is directed to the spoliation of one’s flesh. There is no distinction between body and soul: the man, as a sensitive being, is affected by the enjoyment of its pleasure and, at the same time, by the indigence of the other person.

Suffering is then involuntary in Levinas and voluntary in Kierkegaard. However, both agree on considering pain as constitutive of the relation to Infinity and ethical life. The individual who follows the divine command puts aside the satisfaction of his needs, in order to give himself to the other person.

The reason for suffering is the same in Levinas and Kierkegaard. What really separates them is its aim. Accepting pain of one’s existence makes sense only if oriented to afterlife, writes Kierkegaard. The pursuit of eternal happiness is the reason of renouncing to one’s need and pleasures. According to Levinas, on the other side, it does not matter if there is life after death. Responsibility has to be undertook despite any other reason.46

However, there is no certainty of an eternal happiness, neither in Kierkegaard nor in Levinas. According to the former, it is an orientation toward Infinity, a relational modality, according to the latter it has nothing to do with responsibility. They both theorize a life of possibility, of uncertainty and doubt, which, paradoxically, has a higher value than objective truth.

Levinas recognizes the positivity of possibility in Kierkegaard,47 even if he does not acknowledge the existence of a religious ethics in the Postscript. As it was stated before, Climacus distinguishes universal morality from subjective one: the former constitutes a dogmatic system, while the latter is inconclusive and ongoing. The tension to God, driving force of religious ethics, does not lead to the certainty of beatitude, but at least deploys its possibility.

Levinas and Kierkegaard, notwithstanding some differences, agree in stating the singularity of the subject, which primarily explicates itself in relation to Infinity. The absolute difference between man and God hinders whatsoever objective certainty, but it does not make it less important. To face Infinity inside oneself is inevitable and leads to the realization of one’s own existence. What is more, the divine command indicates the other person as its real addressee. Life means giving oneself to singular alterity. However, in spite of a correct ethical behaviour, striving for Infinity is connected with suffering.

An intense and almost unbearable pain, involving the body and the soul, accompanies the subject until the end of its life. Levinas and Kierkegaard both assert the inevitability of suffering, due to a uniqueness in election. Individual existence is where God reveals Himself and shows the way of giving. This path never ends, until life stops, until worldly existence gives space to a new existence, or, if faith is meaningless, to nothing else (the anxiety over doubt never ends). Subjectivity, despite its finiteness, infinitely strives for what goes beyond.

 

1 Cf. Hegel G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by Miller A. V., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, §§ 793, 805, 808.

2 Kierkegaard S., Fear and Trembling (FT), in Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 59.

3 Ibid., p. 70.

4 According to Pojman, the leap of faith is an act of pure free will (cf. Pojman L., Religious Belief and the Will, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 143-8), while Sagi asserts that it has its root in existence (cf. Sagi A., Kierkegaard, Religion and Existence. The Voyage of the Self, Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi B. V., 2000, p. 41).

5 Cf. FT, p. 33-9.

6 Cf. Levinas E., Difficult Freedom (DF), trans. by Hand S., London: The Athlone Press, 1990, p. 144.

7 Cf. DF, p. 117; Id., “Existence and Ethics”, in Proper Names (PN), trans. by Smith M. B., London: The Athlone Press, 1996, pp. 72-3; Id., “A propos of Kierkegaard vivant”, in op. cit., p. 76.

8 Cf. PN, p. 73.

9 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Concluding Unscientific Postscript (CUP), trans. by Swenson D. F., London: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, 1941, pp. 118-23.

10 Ibid., pp. 133-4.

11 Cf. PN, p. 76.

12 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., “Introduction: Good Fences May Not Make Good Neighbours After all”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), Kierkegaard and Levinas: ethics, politics, and religion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 2; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 22-5, 32-9. According to Simmons, Levinas criticism of Kierkegaard is due to the influence of Jean Wahl (cf. Simmons A. J., “Existential Appropriation: The Influence of Jean Wahl on Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 51-67).

13 Cf. CUP, pp. 175-9.

14 Cf. Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority (TI), Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 119.

15 Cf. CUP, pp. 181-2.

16 PN, p. 77.

17 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., op. cit., p. 3; Simmons A. J., op. cit., pp. 48-9.

18 Cf. TI, pp. 24-5, 41.

19 CUP, p. 169.

20 This is even the presupposition of Kierkegaard’s deconstructive readers, who are against logocentric and one-way interpretations. Cf. Jegstrup E., “Introduction”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), The New Kierkegaard, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 1-2.

21 Cf. TI, pp. 21-7, 203-4; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (OB), Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 15, 19-20, 88, 114-5, 138-9. Cf. also Janiaud J., Singularité et responsabilité. Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Levinas, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2006, pp. 311-4.

22 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Works of Love (WOL), ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 190. Cf. also Westphal M., op. cit., pp. 25-32.

23 Cf. OB, pp. 15-6, 50-6, 72-5, 142. Cf. also Llewelyn J., “Who or What or Whot”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 72; Lellouche R., Difficile Levinas. Peut-on ne pas être levinassien ?, Paris-Tel Aviv : Editions de l’éclat, 2006, pp. 81-3.

24 CUP, p. 412.

25 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 155, 158.

26 Cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 134.

27 Cf. Podmore S. D., Kierkegaard and the Self Before God : Anatomy of the Abyss, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011, pp. xii-xiii, 180.

28 TI, p. 34.

29 Cf. OB, pp. 12-3, 151-2; TI, p. 104. On metaphysical Desire, cf. Ciaramelli F., “Levinas e la fenomenologia del desiderio”, in Moscato A. (ed.), Levinas. Filosofia e trascendenza, Genova: Marietti, 1992, pp. 144-58; Baccarini E., Lévinas. Soggettività e Infinito, Roma: Studium, 1985, pp. 40, 46-7. Lellouche defines it as a hetero-affection (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 86-7). About the semantic ambiguity and non-representativeness of Infinity, cf. Baccarini E., op. cit., pp. 30-8; Chalier C., La trace de l’Infini. Emmanuel Levinas et la source hébraïque, Paris : Cerf, 2002, pp. 65-73 ; Moscato A., “Semantica della trascendenza. Note critiche su E. Levinas”, in Moscato A. (ed.), op. cit., pp. 58-9, 73-8; Plourde S., Emmanuel Lévinas. Altérité et responsabilité, Paris : Cerf, 1996, pp. 136-7 ; Rolland J., Parcours de l’autrement, Paris : PUF, 2000, pp. 1-2. According to Visker, the intrigue of the Infinite is anything but il y a, where the subject, being one-for-the-other, loses its individuality (cf. Visker R., Truth and Singularity. Taking Foucault into Phenomenology, Dordrecht-Boston-London: Kluwer, 1999, pp. 236-7, 241-6, 265-72).

30 TI, p. 60.

31 Cf. TI, pp. 50, 203-4. Cf. also Chalier C., op. cit., pp. 44-8, 56-60; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 19-21; Petitdemange G., “Au dehors : les enjeux de l’alterité chez Emmanuel Lévinas”, in A. Münster (ed.), La différence comme non-indifférence. Éthique et altérité chez Emmanuel Lévinas, Paris : Kimé, 1995, pp. 30-2 ; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 111-4. According to Westphal, Levinas’ transcendence is traumatic because it destabilizes the inwardness of the subject (cf. M. Westphal, “The Trauma of Transcendence as Heteronomous Intersubjectivity”, in M. M. Olivetti (ed.), Intersubjectivité et théologie philosophique, Padova : CEDAM, 2001, pp. 92-8).

32 Cf. PN, pp. 76-7.

33 WOL, p. 190.

34 TI, p. 203.

35 Cf. ibid., p. 279; OB, pp. 141-2.

36 WOL, p. 58. Cf. also ibid., p. 108. Gibbs points out that the alterity of the other person is mediated by the alterity of God (cf. Gibbs R., “I or You: The Dash of Ethics”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), op. cit., p. 146). Seeskin states that the transcendence of Kierkegaard’s God is anonymous and excludes every form of dialogue (cf. Seeskin K., Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 134).

37 OB, p. 12. Cf. also Haar M., “L’obsession de l’autre. L’éthique comme traumatisme”, Cahiers de l’Herne : Lévinas 1991, pp. 444-5; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 119-24; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 106-9; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, op. cit., p. 24.

38 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 191, 197, 308-10.

39 CUP, p. 61.

40 Cf. Gouwens D. J., Kierkegaard as religious thinker, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 49-53, 56.

41 OB, pp. 141-2.

42 Cf. TI, pp. 39, 44, 60, 117-8, 208, 277-9.

43 Cf. CUP, p. 350-3. According to Sagi, the voyage to Infinity and to the self are the same, since obeying to God’s will means realizing one’s own existence. Notwithstanding its weakness in understanding Infinity, the subject has the strenght to follow it. (cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 16, 147).

44 Ibid., pp. 396-7.

45 OB, p. 74. Unlike Westphal, Lellouche defines Levinas’ ethics as traumatic because it coincides with suffering (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 54-7, 70-1).

46 Cf. OB, pp. 6, 117.

47 Cf. Sheil P., Kierkegaard and Levinas. The Subjunctive Mood, Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 4, 144-5.

Ian Carter, Anna Elisabetta Galeotti & Valeria Ottonelli (eds.), Eguale Rispetto (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2008)

Amartya Sen asked two questions: (i) Why equality?; and (ii) Equality as to what? He believed that the answer to the first will necessarily entail an answer to the second. (XI) However, to this reviewer, conspicuous by its absence is the question “Is each human being owed equal respect?”In fact, each of the essays gives the impression of presupposing that respect for other persons ought to be equal and then striving to find justifications for that outcome. In other words, there are no essays that argue that, in fact, we do not owe one another equal respect.

The project is one of philosophy, principally, political and moral philosophy and as such, it is predominantly a theoretical one, being light on concrete application, notwithstanding the editors’ questions. Whilst illuminating the concept of equal respect as well as its importance in human interaction, the collection does not attempt to argue that equal respect is the only or principal guiding value; we are not advised as to the circumstances in which other values may prevail over our duties of equal respect.
It is deeply unfair, of course, to criticize a collection of essays for what it does not achieve rather than recognize its merits as an excellent and nuanced contribution to contemporary philosophical discourse. Thus, the reviewer will now turn to some of the articles to demonstrate what to her seemed to be the most interesting ideas and conclusions contained within their pages.
However, before beginning that task, it is necessary to clearly distinguish – as accomplished clearly in the book, in particular by Stephen Darwall and Anna Elisabetta Galeotti – between “recognition respect” and “appraisal respect.” The former indicates equal respect for each human being solely on the basis of their humanity – it is on this that the book concentrates. Appraisal respect, as the name suggests, is the respect we give to others based on their attributes, be they moral virtue, musical virtuosity, athleticism or erudition. Clearly, appraisal respect is not owed equally to everyone as everyone carries such attributes in unequal measure. Moreover, one can merit appraisal respect in one area but not in another. Noone would question Mozart’s musical talent and the due respect on that ground without respecting his personal life as one displaying moral virtual and one rather doubts he was a gifted ball player.
Beginning with Strozzi’s depiction of Mark 12: 13-17 (“Render unto Caesar…”), Darwall takes a tour of respect as recognition, illustrating the “second person standpoint” as a fundamental component. (1-23) Galeotti expands upon this theme to suggest that recognition respect and appraisal respect have closer links than first appear and argues that even recognition respect can be suspended by unspeakable crimes, justifying punishment according to law, though never torture. (The subject of the death penalty was left, disappointingly, unaddressed.) (24-53, especially at 35-36) This is because respect is not so much felt or given as done. We manifest respect through our behaviour; hence can suspend it in appropriate circumstances.
Ian Carter tackles the question of why equal respect. Given that recognition respect is based on the moral agency and personal autonomy of individuals, why should we not vary our respect based on the evident variations in capacity for the exercise of personal autonomy according to individual characteristics? (54-77, especially at 57-8, 61) Carter answers by rejecting Bernard Williams’ demand that we take the other person’s internal point of view and argues instead that recognition respect must be opaque; we must refuse to look inside the other person and assess them, thus coming to a conclusion closer to a Rawlsian position. (66-70) Carter also reverses Sen’s assumptions and argues instead that one cannot answer the question “Equality as to what?” until we have some answer to the question “Why equality?” that is, we have some justification for equality. (56)
Carla Bagnoli returns to Kant and the significance of dignity and its basis, autonomy, as the foundation of equal respect, and throws some light on the related questions: what is individual autonomy and why does it have moral value? (78-100)
Hillel Steiner, Luca Beltrametti and Lester H. Hunt all address in various modes the requirements of equal respect in economic affairs. Steiner persuades us that, despite neoclassical arguments, free trade can be exploitative. (101-112) Using an example of fair trade bananas, he demonstrates that buying at lower cost is a form of exploitation as the purchaser is benefiting from earlier exploitation – and lack of respect – that has put the producer at a long-term economic disadvantage, thus forcing him to sell at a price lower than he would have absent the earlier exploitation. (108-10) He successfully answers the question “Why pay more?” but he also turns that question around and asks the reader: “Why pay less if it means being unjust?” (107)
Beltrametti considers paternalism in economic affairs and begins from B. New’s position that market imperfection is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to justify paternalism. (113-127) Paternalism may represent a failure to treat its beneficiaries as “ends in themselves” but there are some examples where this is not so. New defines paternalism as A: an interference with the decisional autonomy of the beneficiary; B: with the intention of improving that person’s wellbeing; and C: without the consent of the beneficiary. (114) Beltrametti then distinguishes authoritarian paternalism (which is coercive) from libertarian paternalism (which changes the weights of ones’ reasons for action, such as introducing “default” options in public and private law) (115-117) and finds that the latter is not necessarily more acceptable (or respectful of its beneficiaries) even though it veils itself with the illusion of choice. (122) He adds two more which do not strictly fit with New’s definition, namely Ulysses’ paternalism (which is consensual) and donation paternalism (which requires consent of recipient). (118-120)
Hunt takes us on a disturbing tour of Auschwitz to rebut Robert Nozick’s conclusions in Anarchy, State and Utopia. (128-147) In a complete reversal of respect, Hunt describes the treatment of Jews in the labour camps of Auschwitz, reduced in the eyes of their exploiters to the ultimate “consumable resource.” Each lost 3-4 kg per week and could usually survive for about 3 months before being overcome by starvation, disease or deliberate disposal. Each body was literally consumed, with fat and proteins being converted into labour (like coal or wood burnt for energy) and even in death, body parts were consumed for gold, mattress stuffing and soap. The value of each person was reduced completely to an economic resource. (130-132) In fact, Hunt claims that the labour camps were inefficient even on their own sordid terms; they were poor factories with low output. Furthermore, there was a clear “net-loss” (Kaldor-Hicks) – the persons robbed of their own bodies lost more than was gained by the operators. Nonetheless, this economic analysis seems hardly adequate to explain why we find it so morally horrifying. Nozick’s utility analysis does not explain why it would still be wrong even if it had been economically efficient. Thus, concludes Hunt, there must be some deontological explanation beneath or beyond the economic analysis. (133) Hunt turns to Kant, reminding us that human life has a dignity and not a price; (134) thus we cannot dispose of one Jewish worker and replace him with another of greater “worth” (fatter, fitter, stronger, healthier). (135) Auschwitz’ factories represent the extreme of treating persons as means and not ends in themselves. (136) The second part of Hunt’s article, only loosely connected to the first, discusses the justifications for taxation in democratic states and ultimately concludes that although taxation might be a form of paternalistic coercion (respectful of taxpayers and their ends), in fact, it usually slides into exploitative coercion (like robbery) owing to the clumsiness of states as well as their occasional lack of moral rectitude. (143)
Valeria Ottonelli takes us on a tour of the difficulties of translating the theory of equal respect and formal equality into the realities of the public sphere. (148-173) Examining three concepts – democracy, justification and equal respect – she argues that equal respect mandates democratic governance.
Peter Jones makes an interesting and rather rare foray into the implications of equal respect internationally.(174-200) Despite the fiction that remains the basis of international law, the Westphalian model is no longer a fact of contemporary international relations: states are not independent boxes and certainly not equally independent. (178) Hence, states are not in equal positions to “tolerate” one another as it can only make sense to say that A tolerates B if A has some power to intervene in B and chooses not to exercise it. (177) Furthermore, tolerance or intervention is not a question of a cost-benefit analysis or a perspective of self-interest. (179) Jones argues against intervention as a matter of respect for individuals, rather than respect for “peoples” in some kind of artificial personification of “the state” (186) (defined by Rawls rather than by the Montivideo Convention[2]). (182-184) Some people (persons) may indeed prefer a system that is not liberal-democratic. We can still maintain that a liberal-democratic system is better – even for them – but that is not adequate reason to intervene. (192) In the end, Jones’ conclusion is in line with contemporary international law, which permits humanitarian intervention only in extreme situations.[3] Jones is perhaps over-optimistic about the extent of individuals’ consent to be governed – in liberal-democracies or otherwise – but this paper is theoretical, not practical and thus can be excused.
Elisabeth Telfer completes the book with her essay on humour and equal respect, focusing on ways in which humour can be used to undermine equal respect. (201-213)
On reflection on all the chapters considered together, it becomes less convincing that the collection justifies equal respect at all. Instead, each chapter can be considered as an explanation of and justification for a standard of “equal minimum respect.” Accepting Galeotti’s conclusion that recognition respect and appraisal respect are not of a different nature but rather shades of the same thing, each of the essays can be read as a justification of a presumption of respect at level x for each person qua person, which amount can be increased on the basis of appraisal (x + a) or can be reduced on the basis of exceptionally immoral or anti-social behaviour (x – b). However, x – b can never fall below a basic threshold (y) for example, to justify torture, non-consensual medical experimentation, or to treat human bodies as consumable economic resources. y is the level of equal minimum respect.
It has not been possible in this short review to give equal consideration to each of the commendable essays in this collection but it is hoped that this review will encourage readers to take a closer look at the book and, for those not fluent in Italian, to seek out further work by these accomplished scholars.

[1] All translations are the reviewer’s own.

[2] Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, Dec. 26, 1933, Art. 1.

[3] Cf: United Nations Charter, Art. 2(4) (principle of non-intervention in sovereign states) and Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9th December 1948, 78 U.N.T.S. 277, Art. 1 (requiring states “to prevent and to punish” genocide and indicating, therefore, international intervention). See also, Case concerning the application of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v Serbia and Montenegro) Judgment of 26th February 2007, 2007 ICJ Rep. 1.

Flavio Baroncelli, Mi manda Platone, edited by Annalisa Siri and Emilio Mazza (Genoa: il melangolo, 2009)

Flavio Baroncelli’s posthumous collection of short pieces by il melangolo is a splendid exception to standard philosophical literature. It is a slender book (157 pp.) that can be read purely and simply. Indeed, to the extent available to hopeless academically minded professional philosophers like myself, it can be enjoyed as a string of exquisite literary-philosophical vignettes. These short pieces, originally published in various Italian periodicals and newspapers, range from scholarly debates on Plato’s role in Western culture to the pride of showing scars and tattoos on one’s own body. They are divided in two parts, the former dealing with philosophical themes (15-83) and the latter dealing with ordinary life and socio-political affairs (87-149). Witty and concise, they retain the inventiveness and the curiosity that characterised Baroncelli’s life, of which Armando Massarenti, Emilio Mazza, Annalisa Siri and Gürol Sagiroglu Baroncelli provide a useful account via the preface (5-8), a short biography (151-3) and an editorial note (155-7).

Some professional philosophers, like the undersigned, may attempt to make some use of Baroncelli’s book, e.g. by writing a review of it. However, the review is bound to be fairly unorthodox. What can one say of a book that reads: refreshingly colloquial yet deep; humbly self-depreciating but highly learned; ironically sceptical though warmly humane; both open to the general public and pregnant nonetheless with precious insights for actual academics? Baroncelli’s prose, full of abstraction-averse, real-life examples and academic-pomposity-shattering vernacular gems, flows like the prose of his eighteenth-century role-models. Most of all, it recalls Voltaire’s prose, whose humour and compassion it evokes when dealing with topics such as tolerance, liberty, dignity, multiculturalism, religion and scientific realism.

Perhaps, the author of this slender book would have preferred to be compared to David Hume, whom Baroncelli admired and studied. Or even to Hume’s and the French philosophes’ much older mentor, i.e. Michel de Montaigne, to whom Baroncelli devotes a delightful sketch (23-6). Still, it is Voltaire the name that springs to mind when Baroncelli combines together, with a few touches of his pen, experience, irony, linguistic analysis, moral wisdom and intellectual acumen.

Professional philosophers may fear such a facility of expression. Clear and pleasant language is often seen as a threat to an argument’s poignancy and visibility. Long, tedious, difficult passages abound in philosophical literature. This happens not solely because philosophers are not poets or novelists, though they may be failed ones, but also because philosophers want the full load of reasoning poured into their works to be felt and borne by the reader. Whenever reasoning seems too unhindered and beautifully rendered, professional philosophers are likely to accuse it of being either “shallow” or “rhetorical”, if not even both. Nonetheless Baroncelli was a professional philosopher, and a good one. His arguments are sound, they stand on solid ground, and they are written so well and humorously – there is enough to become bitterly envious.

Certainly, the same philosophers that treat as “shallow” and “rhetorical” their literarily gifted colleagues are likely to accuse me of being partial. After all, I knew personally Flavio Baroncelli as a teacher, mentor, and friend. That is why I shall invite them to attempt to read simply his latest and, probably, last book. They should follow the advice that he himself gave with regard to Plato, whom one should read “because he is useless” (66). Hopefully, they will appreciate Baroncelli’s gentle and humorous way of being a genuine, unpretentious source of enlightenment.