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Translation as Critique of “Cultural Sameness”: Ricoeur, Luther and the Practice of Translation




This article discusses translation as a critique of what I call “cultural sameness”. “Cultural sameness” is a rephrasing of the Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad’s concept “imagined sameness” (Gullestad 2002, 2004). With this notion she wants to show how the process of inclusion (and exclusion) of new citizens into Norwegian society depends not only on receiving formal status as an equal citizen, but also how inclusion is linked to a social and anthropological dimension: in order to be regarded as an equal, the same cultural background and origin is required. In the text I interpret this “imagined sameness” as referring to cultural sameness. We imagine that the others we recognize as our equals have the same cultural background as ourselves and that we are recognized by others culturally identical or similar to ourselves. It is the constellation of sameness and culture that I want to question in this text.    

Sameness as a logical category (to be the same or being identical) is perceived as binary and defined by its opposite: difference. The problem with sameness is that it is oppositional, and hence closed, and that culture together with sameness here constitutes a kind of vicious circle: those who are included belong to the same culture, and those who are excluded belong to a different one. My claim is that the reason why culture has a part in exclusion and inclusion is due to its being linked to the idea of sameness and it is this very sameness that should be questioned.

How can we go about it? How can we challenge the binary logic of sameness and difference? I propose a reflection on the theory and practice of translation as analogous to thinking of culture in a way that does not work on the assumption of binary sameness and difference. As a guide for these reflections I select the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and his book On translation (Ricoeur 2004b). As a well demonstrated historical case I will also draw on Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German during the 16th century. Luther’s translation showed that it was possible for the meaning of the original text in Hebrew and Greek to be understood in the German language. As regards my guide, I wish to emphasise two points regarding Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation.

First of all by taking Ricoeur’s understanding of translation I want to show that the problem of understanding culture as static, pure and different is analogous to how languages are thought of as untranslatable (focusing on difference) or translatable (focusing on sameness).

A second aspect of translation is the consequence of the first point. If cohabitation in a society depends on cultural sameness or shared cultural identity, then this must mean that there is an inside and an outside to this culture that make it possible to distinguish those who belong here and those who do not. Translation gives us an alternative way of imagining this. Like translations, following Ricoeur, create comparables between languages, comparables between cultures can be created too. My claim is thus that we do not have to have the same cultural background in order to be able to live together. Translation through its practices thus articulates how equality and difference can be possible at the same time. Thus the link between equality and sameness is not unbreakable.




The problem of “cultural sameness”: closure and exclusion

The complex aim of this text is to discuss translation in relation to a certain notion of culture and the role that culture plays in inclusion and exclusion of new citizens. So, first of all, what does this notion of culture distinguish and what role does it play in inclusion and exclusion?   

Central to my argument is what Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad suggested in two of her articles, where she discussed how “culture” has replaced “race” as a means for excluding and including New Norwegian citizens. She claimed that it is not sufficient to acquire formal legal status as a citizen in order to be recognized as an equal citizens; this new citizen also has to feel that she is “the same” as those whose recognition is sought. Referring to Alexis de Tocqueville, Gullestad wrote that: “people have to feel that they are more or less the same in order to be equal of value” (Gullestad 2002, p. 46).

This feeling is analogous to the “imagined” and refers to the historian Benedict Andersons’ ground-breaking study of nationalism, Imagined communities (Anderson 2006). Anderson included imagination as an analytical concept for rendering account of the possibility that a huge amount of people who have never met and are geographically spread across an enormous territory to share a feeling of belonging together: the feeling of a national community could thus be said to be imagined[2].

The link that Gullestad creates between the constitutional equality of all Norwegian citizens and the socially and anthropologically constituted value of equality makes sense since it explains the inconsistencies often found in debates on Norwegian culture. It is often said that immigrants, when becoming Norwegian citizens, “must adapt to our ways of living” and abandon their cultural features and customs when those are conflicting with the norms inherent in Norwegian culture. But there seems to be confusion as to how they should do this and about what they should adapt to. When discussing Norwegian culture, the debate tends to fluctuate between references to language, values, cultural traditions, religious background (Andersen/ Tybring-Gjedde 2010) on the one hand, and the legal and political fundamentals of society such as democracy, rule of law and the freedom of speech on the other (NRK 2009, debate on Norwegian  values). Whereas the essence of what is Norwegian is vague, the legal and political fundamentals are not particularly Norwegian. However, Gullestad’s analysis explains, as far as I see it, why there is no mix up after all: the imagined sameness constitutes the community and consequently the execution of equality in the social world. In order to be recognized as equal one must be the same (identical and/or similar) as those recognizing you. From this perspective, it seems impossible to adapt to the Norwegian society, even if one minutely follows the decrees and requirements of political and legal institutions, simply because the cultural background of the immigrant is different.     

Gullestad expands the idea of “imagined community” into what she calls “imagined sameness”: we imagine that everyone who belongs to a national community is the same as ourselves[3]. In fact, it is the hallmark of a specific Nordic imagination, that “social actors must consider themselves as more or less the same” (Gullestad 2002, p. 46). It is not sufficient to render any account of Norwegian egalitarianism by referring to Norway’s formal constitutional framework. Her aim is to articulate the social and anthropological dimension that constitutes egalitarianism as a value. She continues by saying that:


When they [the social actors] thus manage to establish a definition of the situation focusing on sameness, each of the parties – paradoxically – also gains confirmation of their individual value. In order to have their desired identities confirmed, people need relevant others who are able and willing to recognize and support them. According to the logic involved, the relevant supporters are other people who are regarded as similar. This logic often leads to an interaction style in which commonalities are emphasized, while differences are played down. In this way the sameness cannot always be observed but is, rather, a style that focuses on sameness. For the sake of simplicity I call it “imagined sameness” (Ibid, p. 47).


What I find interesting here is what she says about commonalities being emphasized. The commonalities she has in mind are culture, origin and ancestry. I hence find it pertinent to interpret or rephrase Gullestad’s term “imagined sameness” as a “cultural sameness”, meaning that what is imagined as common, or that which makes us the same, is the culture one belongs to.

Going back to Gullestad, she utilizes Anderson’s reflections on the function of the imagination to shed some light on mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion and the establishment of hierarchy. Her point is, as far as I understand it, that even though egalitarianism is supposed to account for everyone, we do not leave the idea of cultural belonging when it comes to the recognition of who is a genuinely equal citizen. We thus enter the play of exclusion and inclusion. Even though equality is supposed to be universal and individual, equality is nevertheless linked to a common culture, ancestry and origin. And this “”culture” is somehow regarded as completed” (2002, p. 53). Therefore, it is not too farfetched to interpret Gullestad’s imagined sameness as a cultural sameness, which refers to cultural identity and cultural origin. For an immigrant, or rather through the very label of being called an “immigrant”, this renders the inclusion into a society a difficult task. An immigrant is someone whose cultural identity and origin is always different and which will never cease to stick with this person. The immigrant is, almost by receiving this nametag alone, excluded from the community of genuine Norwegians and placed within an invisible hierarchy of Norwegians. This exclusion and hierarchy is possible to establish on the basis of an assumption that there is a cultural difference between the original and ethnic Norwegians and those entering the community.    

We are now approaching the problem that I want to look into and which connects “cultural sameness” and translation. The logic, which makes it possible to reproduce the interface between inclusion and exclusion or the tension between equality and hierarchy, is connected to “sameness”. Or rather, “sameness” is, logically speaking, an oppositional notion that has difference as its counterpart: that which is not the same, is different. In The Oxford English Dictionary we can read the following about the definition of identity: “the sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else” (cited in Gleason 1983). “Sameness” appears synonymously with “identity” and is defined through “not being something else”. Since sameness and difference represent oppositional notions, they exclude each other. In fact the only way they can be related is by mutually excluding each other. The point is that this logic is found on a practical and social level too, in the sense that those who have a different cultural background and attachment are excluded. And when applied to “culture” this renders culture something closed. It resembles a vicious circle: the imagined sameness shapes our understanding of culture, which in its turn reproduces exclusion and inclusion, and this exclusion and inclusion affirms the imagined sameness. The question is then whether it is possible to break the circle. Is it possible to articulate openness of culture? And if so, how should we articulate it?  

By drawing a parallel between culture and language, I wish to show how translation as a problematization of the closing of languages might teach us something about the closing of culture. As far as I am concerned, the obstacle in seeing culture as closed is parallel, if not identical, to the problem of untranslatability and lack of communicative ability between languages. Common for them both is that sameness and difference constitute closure. At the social level this closure is reproducing exclusion, whereas in the field of language what is being reproduced tends to be the view that communication is impossible. However, in order to comprehend this parallel, we must turn our attention more fully to translation.      



What is translation?

Translation comes from Classical Latin translatus. Trans means “across” and latus is the perfect passive participle of the verb fero, ferre, which means “to bear”. To translate is to lead, bring, transport or conduct across and over to something.

In the practice of translation we find both the aspect of carrying something across and then of interpreting it. This practice could be described as the tension between two poles: source language and target language. The French translation scholar Jean-René Ladmiral writes that: “Translation passes a message from the language of departure or source language to the language of arrival or target language.” (Ladmiral 1994, p. 11; translation by the author) The translation transmits both meaning and message from one place to another. The point of departure is thus something incomprehensible that requires that we carry it over to our side for interpretation. It could perhaps be illustrated by the image of two separate river banks. Transporting something from one side to the other is thus perturbed until something, for instance, a bridge, is constructed, which may be able to carry things across. The two banks are no longer separated. However, the river is still there and the bridge might be fragile: a bad translation might turn out to be ruinous, leading to new misunderstandings. Briefly put, a translation might potentially always be replaced by a better one.

Relevant historical examples of translation are not difficult to find. During the 12th century, the contact between the West and the Arabic world led to vital developments, as the Greek source and foundation of the West were rediscovered. For instance, major works by Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle were translated by Wilhem of Moerbekes (Störig 1963, p. xi). However, despite a widespread practice of translation, there were no theoretical studies of translations until much later. Even though a scientific approach to translation emerged in the 15th century with Leonardo Bruni’s work De Interpretatione Recta (1420), a theoretical approach to translation was first and foremost developed from the 19th century onwards. Ricoeur refers in many places to the work of Antoine Berman and his book L’épreuve de l’étranger, where Berman discusses two German traditions of translation. On the one hand we have the likes of Novalis and Schlegel, who subscribed to what Berman called a speculative theory of translation, which was furthermore linked to what they conceived of as critique. Berman writes that for the romantic thinkers’ translation was a way of improving the potential in the original. This led for instance to the conclusion that Shakespeare was better in German than in the original English:


The original itself…possesses an a priori aim: The idea of the work, that the work wants to be (l’Idée de l’Oeuvre que l’oeuvre veut être), tends to be…but which it empirically speaking never is. The original, in this sense, is nothing but the copy- the translation if you like- of this a priori figure…By this aim the translation produces a “better” text than the first (Berman, p. 172).


On the other hand we have among others Humboldt and Schleiermacher, who for the first time tries to conceive of that which is alien or strange in a text. Following Berman’s account what is different for them compared to Novalis and Schlegel is that understanding is introduced as a problem. To understand a text is to understand “an expressive product of a subject” (Ibid, p. 227)and the phenomenon of objective language defined by history and culture. And this conception of history and culture is different from those of the readers, interpreters or translators. (Ibid) Thirdly, language is not just an instrument, but the place where the human being lives. Language defines who a human being is and renders expression through language essential. Through these three points one becomes aware of the difference between languages and the importance of these differences. A text is the expression of an individual author who expresses him- or her-self in the language of a specific time and place. Without taking this specific time and place into account, the vital aspect of the expression is lost.  

Schleiermacher in particular is enormously interesting in his linking of understanding, interpretation and translation. Whereas interpretation concerns itself with ordinary expressions, translation handles science and art. But how should this relation between the authors and the reader’s language be balanced by the translator? It is here that Schleiermacher refutes the idea that one should translate as if the author wrote in the language of the reader (Ibid, p. 235). The most important issue to recognize for a translator is the writer’s relation to his or her mother tongue.  Schleiermacher argues that in order to recognize one’s own mother tongue and having one’s own mother tongue recognized, one must be able to receive what is different. As far as I understand it, this means that what is strange and different has a constitutive role for the status of equality. Berman once wrote that Schleiermacher linked translation to a cultural situation where the national language has not yet affirmed itself, and thus could not receive the other languages nor present itself as a cultivated language (Ibid, p. 236).

Thus we may see that translation has a role to play in the inter-subjective constitution of languages. By approaching the reader’s language to the author, translations can demonstrate the equal value of the author’s language. What is first and foremost interesting for our part is the role of what is foreign (l’épreuve de l’étranger) here. It is only by showing that the reader’s mother tongue is as rich as the author’s that it can receive a status as equal. And this equality between languages is, as we shall see, pivotal for understanding Luther’s translation, which I will discuss later.

Why take this brief historical tour through the theme of translation? Schleiermacher’s sensitivity for those elements and words which are foreign represents a central event in the philosophy of translation. Translation should be seen as an effort to understand what is foreign and thus remains a challenge for the translator. Is it possible to bring a foreign meaning or message over into your own language without losing the original meaning? On the other hand, how far should we go in making the foreign into the absolute? Are translations impossible due to the differences between languages, or are they possible because we are all of the same nature or with the same historical origin? We will now go on scrutinizing the translator’s attempt to balance two languages in order that we may articulate a thinking that does not see sameness and difference as the only alternatives.           



Translation from theory to practice

If we now turn more specifically to Paul Ricoeur’s notion of translation, the basis for our reflections is a collection of three articles on translation published under the title Sur la traduction (Ricoeur 2004a). I shall not give a summary of the texts here, but rather refer to those parts which are central to our problem.

Translation fluctuates between the language of the author and the language of the reader. Ricoeur refers to a long tradition in the theory of translation. Franz Rosenzweig presents translation as a paradox. It serves two masters: the author in her work and the readers’ desire to understand. Schleiermacher for his part describes, as we have seen, translation as taking the author to the reader and the reader to the author. According to him, a translator has to choose in the end between the language of the author and the language of the reader. And in the end it is the translator’s ability to let the reader’s language receive the author’s language that is the test of whether or not the reader’s language is equal to the author’s. (Berman, pp. 226-250) Ladmiral in his book Traduire: théorèmes pour la traduction denominates the antinomy in translation between the litteral and the litterary(Ladmiral 1994, p. 89).

Now, the tension between these two poles – the author and the reader – has led to both a linguistic and a philological debate, as well as to speculation on whether or not translation is in fact possible. Two kinds or types of response can be discerned. On the one hand, given the diversity of languages, the differences between languages make translation impossible. And, as Ladmiral points out, this seems to be a dominant position. (Ibid, p. 85) In lack of a third text, the transition between the two languages remains blocked. On the other hand, given that translations actually take place, different languages must be sharing some common ground. This is an attempt to justify translations based on either common origin prior to the separation of all languages, or in a prior deeper or implicit structure common to all languages. However both strands meet obstacles: the former cannot explain the fact that translations take place; the latter does not succeed in supplying us with this common ground.

Ricoeur’s contribution is not a solution to these problems. His point is rather that this problem, whether or not translation is possible, is a theoretical problem imposed from the outside. He tries to understand the problem that the practice of translation is a response to. And what is this problem? According to Ricoeur, the real problem in the practice of translation is whether to be faithful to or to betray the language of the reader and whether to be faithful or to betray the language of the author. The outcome of this tension is “the production of equivalence without identity”. (Ricoeur 2004a: 63) Since the tension between fidelity and treason is never dissolved, it rather accounts for how an equivalent is not identical. Even though Ricoeur to a certain point might be right, the question is whether this displacement from theory to practice really avoids the problem about whether or not translation is possible As Ladmiral points out, the question about whether translation is possible is posed exactly due to this problem – which language to be faithful to – in the practice. They are part of the same antinomy. Thus it appears difficult to get rid of the question concerning whether translation is possible, due to the fact that every translation is faced with the question of whether it is a good translation. On the other hand, the question is then of quality and not of possibility. To say that a translation is not sufficient is not to say that translation as such is impossible. And in a translation some parts might be deemed more successful than others. That does not mean that less successful translations prove the impossibility of translating, only that the demand of faithfulness to the two languages has been difficult to comply with.  

This problem still endures after the translator’s work itself is finished. Even though there is no third text from where one can judge a translation, it does not follow that the translation is exempt from criticism. And the best way to criticize a translation is to present a better one. Critique is perhaps too vague or general to constitute a principle in translations, but is however a necessary part of the translator’s onerous task.



Between fidelity and treason: Luther’s creation of the comparable

Translation is the construction of equivalence without identity or a comparable between two languages. This implies a continuity and rupture of meaning at the same time. Where continuity is ensured in the commitment or faithfulness to both the author and the reader, the ruptures reveal themselves in the betrayal of them. The fidelity of received language is jeopardised in favour of a creative act, which at the same time is, as Ricoeur writes, a risk: “Grandeur of translation, risk of translation: creative betrayal of the original, equally creative appropriation by the language of reception or; construction of the comparable.” (Ricoeur 2004b: 37)

What then is a comparable? An example that is close to Ricoeur’s heart is Martin Luther’s translation of the Greek Bible into German in the 16th century. Translations of the Bible had been undertaken before, both into German as well as into other languages, but Luther gave the first complete translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts into German without going through Latin. Luther also found the earlier German translations of parts of the Bible too Latin, whereas he aimed at a Germanization of the Bible. We are not forgetting the Geneva Bible or the Czech translation by the Moravian church, even though that is not our focus here. Before Luther, the translation of the Greek text had been done through Latin. The Catholic Church had had a monopoly regarding translation and interpretation of the Bible through the Latin language, which only the Church was the real possessor of. If we read Luther’s own thoughts on Biblical translation in Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, we can discern his antiauthoritarian statement that:


We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German… Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them. (Luther 2003; translation by Gary Mann)


Reading this, it is striking to note the central role that translation has in Luther’s reformation. As Luther’s credo was that the Bible is the only authority (sola scriptura), he opened the way for a thinking that did not have to go through the tradition of the Catholic Church. In order to realise this idea that the Bible is the only authority, a consequence is that everyone must be able to read it. Sola scriptura is no good without people being able to read the Bible. Luther’s solution is ingenious. Instead of everyone learning the only accepted language of translation, Latin, which up until then had only been reserved for a few, the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts became accessible in the language of the people. In other words, Luther’s translation is not merely the effect of the idea of the reformation; it could be understood as its articulation and realisation. Or differently put, would sola scriptura be equally meaningful without the translation of the Bible? The translation thus expresses the reformation on a concrete and symbolic level. The real effect was however not only a change in the religious perception, but the destabilisation of the Church’s power and hegemony. This power was partly constituted by the Latin language as the language through which one had access to God’s word and hence the truth. The truth of God’s word constituted this power. The implication of translating the Bible to other languages than Latin was that truth was no longer mediated by the Church.

Luther wanted to Germanize the Bible by translating it into good German, the German of the people. However it was not clear what good German meant, as the Germans spoke a number of dialects (Mundarten). Antoine Berman (1995) describes the difficult balance. Luther’s double attempt was to:


Translate into a German which a priori was local, his own Hochdeutsch German, but in this process of translating, elevate this local German into a common German (un allemand commun), a lingua franca. In order for this German not to become a language detached from the people, it had to conserve something of the Mundarten and the general modes of expressions from popular language (Berman, p. 46; translation by the author).


In order for the German particularity to acquire universality in the sense of equality with Latin, it could not remain in the “pure” particularity of the dialects. However, without some continuity to the dialects and the Mundarten, it would become too strong a homogenization. 

Even though Luther was convinced that God’s word could be received in the German language, he was not exempt from the paradoxical demand in every translation of serving two masters: the language of the original or the language of the reader. Even though the principle of taking the original to the reader’s language is the most common for all translations, Luther finds it also necessary to practice the other principle of taking the reader to the language of origin. As Franz Rosenzweig writes in his text “Die Schrift und Luther” (Rosenzweig 1963), Luther was conscious of the necessity to give room for the Hebrew language in order to fully appreciate the meaning of the text. It was thus sometimes necessary to go beyond the German normal language, as he explains in his foreword to the translation of the Psalms, and “get used to” such words (solche Worte behalten, gewohnen). For example, in order to conserve the Hebrew meaning he substitutes Gefangenden erlöset (liberated the imprisoned) with Gefängnis gefangen (imprisoned the prison/imprisonment) as an expression of what Christ has done. The Hebrew meaning, that expresses that Christ has imprisoned the prison itself, could thus be said to hold an even stronger meaning than just claiming that he has liberated the imprisoned. Now, what is interesting here is that Luther does not import a foreign word to express this, but twists the German language itself so that it can receive the proper meaning of the original. It is still German, but Luther found (in Gefängnis gefangen) either a potential not yet brought to the fore in the German language, or he actually constructed a neologism in German.     

The idea of the universal as the word, reason or right in European history is accompanied by a notion of its linguistic form (Latin, French). Latin could thus be opposed by particular languages, or rather languages which had only an oral usage on the one hand, and languages that had writing and grammar on the other. This notion of the universal as the opposite to the particular is however something that found its way into the age of the Enlightenment. But, as Richard Kearney points out, there were obstacles:


The ideal in the century of Enlightenment of a universal perfect language was confronted with the resistance from cultural differences that rested on linguistic disparity… most attempts at founding a language one and absolute was found to be, de facto, an imperialist and cunning manoeuvre… which aimed at giving privilege to one particular language…in relation to the languages of subordinate countries or regions. (Kearney, p. 163)


According to Annelise Senger, Luther viewed translation as reviving old German words rather than importing foreign elements. In this respect Luther actually did contribute to homogenize the German language as later will become clear. As Luther states elsewhere in Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, the most important element to be conserved from the original text is its implied meaning.  

For our part, the most interesting aspect of Luther’s translation is how German becomes a language that the “original” text could be translated into. How can this balance, that Berman describes as “neither Latin nor a pure dialect, but a popular use of language”, be articulated? German was up until then incomparable to Latin and thus inept as translation-language. In other words, German was not an equivalent to Latin when it came to receiving the word of God. God did not speak German until Luther translated the Bible. Luther thus changed the perception of the German language. Ricoeur writes that:


Luther not only constructed a comparable in translating the Bible into German, in “germanizing” it, as he dared say, in the face of St. Jerome’s Latin, but created the German language, as comparable to Latin, to the Greek of the Septuagint, and to the Hebrew of the Bible. (Ricoeur 2004b: 37)


Once again, Luther’s translation had a striking significance for the philosophy of the Enlightenment a century later. First of all, the Church was dethroned as exclusive authority. However, that did not imply a rejection of the universal as such. Without claiming that Luther was an Enlightenment thinker-, one could perhaps localize Luther’s enterprise as being somewhere between what later became the French and the German versions of Enlightenment. The former is focused on dethroning all authorities with reference to metaphysics, tradition etc., but nevertheless preserves a centralist and anti-traditional universalism. The latter is represented by, for instance, Herder, who criticizes the rationalism of the authors of the Encyclopédie. On Herder’s stance, Louis Dumont writes in Essais sur l`individualisme that he criticized: “The enlightenment for their vulgar rationalism, their narrow understanding of progress, and above all the hegemony of this universalist rationalism” (Dumont 1983, p. 137; translation by the author). Despite Luther’s and Herder’s diverging views on translation, Luther initiated a criticism of the universalism on which Herder continues. Having said that, Luther’s enterprise is not a refutation of the universal in general, as Dumont proposes in the case of Herder. Even though Luther’s perspective was to prove  the Church wrong, and not to promote any kind of modern plurality, rendering the word of God accessible for everyone in their own language, set ideas in motion that led to a later destabilisation of the notion of the universal. In translation it is possible to grasp the universal in the particular.

Returning to the dilemma of treason and fidelity, what status does this conversion of signs have? Since there is no third text or criterion by which one can measure the correctness of a translation, one is left with the dilemma of treason and fidelity. And as Olivier Abel and Jerome Porée write, not even a true fidelity is an identical replica. However, they write as well: “that does not mean that translation is treason… it is a creative fidelity. “ (Abel/Porée, p. 125) They seem to indicate an opposition between treason and fidelity that creativity tries to surmount. This seems a bit odd, particularly in the light of Ricoeur’s own description of the grandeur of translation as “creative betrayal of the original“. However one chooses to see it, what seems to be at the center of the dilemma between fidelity and treason is creativity. Creativity is necessary in order to make the reader’s language able to receive the foreign language. On the other hand “too much” creativity risk losing the faithfulness to both languages. Thus the translator has to decide how “much” creativity and which of the two languages one has to be most faithful to.

We are now in a better position to understand the initial precisions on the comparable. Theoretically speaking, the construction of a comparable means three things: the comparable unites two entities that before where separated or heterogeneous; in this case the German written language unites the spoken German as well as the original texts in Greek and Hebrew. Secondly, in this process, the German language thought of as inferior is lifted up to equal Latin, Greek and Hebrew. And, thirdly, this equality is achieved without abandoning the German language tradition.

Going back to Ricoeur’s displacement from theory to practice, the question is not whether it is possible to translate the Bible, but to what degree the translation betrays or remains faithful to the original language and the language of the reader. Luther created what we can call an equivalent without adequacy or identity, or in other words an equivalent without homogeneity. Luther emphasizes a connective aspect when German as a language can only become a language of its own after or through its connection to planetary meanings or universals like the Bible. By finding equivalence between the Hebrew and Greek languages and the German dialects, German could be recognized as a particular language. But if this is possible, then it opens up the question of how that may be possible. Is there some common ground historically or in human nature which makes it possible? On the other hand, the failure to find the perfect translation might lead us to the opposite conclusion, i.e. that it is impossible. In other words, we see here a parallel between the problems in translation and those of culture, that is the transition between outside and inside and the question of how these two could somehow be joined. The practice of translation seems to assume and question the inside and outside of language at the same time. It assumes both unity and diversity of language. Translation is both a success (when presenting a translation) and a failure (at finding a perfect translation). These are the paradoxes of translation. 


From language to culture and back: the parallel

How is Luther’s creation of a comparable relevant to the question of cultural sameness? As Ricoeur shows, translation does not work on such epistemological assumptions. Languages are either too different or have the same origin, but in both cases they pursue their own epistemological questions. The epistemology of translation may rather be found in practice. Or as Ricoeur writes, paraphrasing Donald Davidson, that translation is: ”Theoretically Difficult, Hard and Practically Simple, Easy.” (Ricoeur 2004b, p. 15) Having said that, practices never articulate themselves but must be explicated.

What I first of all find interesting is Ricoeur’s take on this. Like the creation of a comparable shows that the problem “whether translation is possible or not” is a false or merely theoretical problem, this helps us to ask if the analogous problem “whether it is possible to live together in a culturally diverse society or not” is a false or merely theoretical problem too. What the hypothetical question does not take into account is the case where the problem has already been overcome. But since Ricoeur has analysed this through Luther’s practical enterprise, he has also found that this is not the question that translation responds to at all. The question is rather the degree of faithfulness or betrayal to one of the two languages. As far as I can see, this represents an insightful approach that is transferable to the question of culture. A process of integration is perhaps rather a question of how faithful or how deceitful one could be.  

Homogeneity in the sense of demand for adaptation is thus a response to a false problem. The demand for adaptation is a response to a problem that assumes that other cultures represent a threat to democracy as well as to society as a whole, whether Norwegian or French, etc. I am not making an invitation to relativism or a refutation of values, norms and principles in our societies. Nor am I presenting a naïve proposition. There are of course groups and individuals who have no interest in democracy and the rule of law, and there are those who are aiming at founding society on alternative laws. But in this context as elsewhere, there are only potentialities, and no guarantees.

My point is rather that this hypothetical question is nurturing itself on the logic of identity and difference that is common to both language and culture. The theory of translation puts the basic question of whether translation is at all possible or not. It premises the outcome on either an identity of all languages in human nature or a common origin, or on the differences between languages being insurmountable. This is a similar point to that of Gullestad when she reflects on the imagined sameness, which is a common cultural identity and origin. This sameness has as its opposite another and different cultural identity and origin. Following the egalitarian logic, and it being linked to this imagined sameness, any co-habituation is impossible because of a lack of original common origin that may ground a community. The hypothetical and the imagined have that in common: that they disregard practices that show something else than what theory allows. What Gullestad does not take into account is the practices or examples of successful integration, which could be subversive to the imagined sameness.  

Going back to Luther and the epistemological problem that Luther wrestled with in his translations, he did not deal with the question of whether or not the translation was possible, but rather whether he could succeed in stabilising the tension between faithfulness and treason. Again, the problem is not theoretical but practical. Likewise, we must investigate multicultural society taking the practices that are already there in order to articulate that which is already possible in practice. The idea of a cultural sameness and the demand for adaptation to our values does not render us capable of understanding the intercultural practices, which are already there and transgress our imagination. In the way in which translation as a practice transgresses our imagination, we must look into transcultural and intercultural practices that also transgress our imagination.  

Further, as a result of this preliminary “deconstruction” of the question comes the more constructive solution. In Luther’s case, the creation of a comparable makes languages (German and Greek) that before were separated or heterogeneous, open to each other. Thus, Luthers practice of translation has not only showed us a false or badly put question. It has also given us more specifically a practical example, which can reflect on cultural diversity. Translation as a practical activity overcomes obstacles of understanding. The fact that people go from not understanding to understanding one another is understandable first of all from the practice of translation. The risk is of course that the translation becomes focused on adaptation.

In addition, the equal status of German and Latin is achieved without abandoning the German language and German tradition. If the point of Luther’s translation was the creation of an equivalent without identity, something comparable to Latin, this is important due to the fact that it was no longer an obligation to learn Latin to conceive of God’s word. German received the status of universal equality to Latin, but kept its German particularity. German as Biblical language was the construction of an equivalent to Latin without being identical to Latin. To say that German is equivalent or comparable to Latin is to say at once that German and Latin are of equal value, that it is possible to say the same in both languages, and that a premise is not a complete homogenisation.   

This gives us another interesting take on the parallel between language and culture. As I see it, there are some analogous points between the Latin-German opposition and the sameness-otherness opposition in a multicultural society. What Luther’s translation created was an equality which is not based on sameness. Even though the German language is related to Latin, Greek or Hebrew, it is not reducible to them. Instead a specific German branch of Christianity saw the light of the day and augmented the linguistic and cultural spectre of the Christian religion. Equality meant thus creative contribution and recognition, but not on its own terms alone. Likewise, homogenisation, total adaptation, or cultural sameness are not a prerequisite for co-habituation and equality in a society. What generates a feeling of equality is rather that one with one’s own background can contribute to this co-habituation and perhaps broaden the imagination of what it means to be Norwegian, French, etc. 



The paradigm of openness

Ricoeur writes that translation is a paradigm and articulates a linguistic hospitality. This linguistic hospitality consists in the fact that the attempt to understand the foreign language is prior to the appropriation of it. Translation questions our self-centered being by living in a language other than our own and by welcoming a foreign language to be in our own. By calling it a “paradigm”, Ricoeur sees a parallel or analogy between languages, confessions, and religions. I would like not only to add culture to the list of analogues, but even say that translation is an intervention into the paradigm of linguistic comparison that constitutes the logic of cultural sameness and cultural difference. What Ricoeur means by calling it a paradigm is that it goes deeper and wider than this kind of comparison.

In the secondary literature on Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation, the concept of paradigm is mentioned many times. Richard Kearney writes about translation as a linguistic, ontological, anthropological and hermeneutic paradigm. Kearney writes: “Ricoeur is holding the view that good translations require a radical openness towards the other.”(Kearney, p. 161) And further: “the translation is exposing us to what is other (l’étranger). We are at the same time involved with an alterity residing outside ourselves (en dehors du chez-soi) and an alterity residing inside.”(Ibid, p. 164) This point of an alterity residing inside ourselves is a point underlined many times by Ricoeur and originally borrowed from Georg Steiner, who in his book After Babel (Steiner 1998) writes about translation internal to a cultural and linguistic domain. It seems as though we are confronted here with a question of openness. Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation is a philosophy of hospitality which points to an openness. And even though this could easily be interpreted as an ethical statement, does it not also equally hold as an epistemological statement about the practice of translation? This is not a relativist point of view. In order for a translation to be good both languages must be open: otherwise it is not a translation. Openness renders account for the rules governing the practice of translation: in order to translate one it is necessary to listen and learn what is foreign. Otherwise we are not translating. 





If we now take everything into consideration, we see that the “cultural sameness” that renders culture into a mechanism of exclusion and inclusion is situated within the binary logic of identity and difference. In order to be included into a society you have to be imagined to have the same cultural attachment. I have tried to challenge this notion by reflecting on an alternative to oppositional thinking: translation. The practice of translation follows a logic that is not oppositional but rather one of balances between languages and degrees of openness between them. In order to translate one must be open to another language, but without abandoning his or her own starting language. Luther’s translation showed that such openness was possible for the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew text to enter the German language and for these meanings to be articulated in new forms.




Abel O. and Porée J. (2009) Le vocabulaire de Ricoeur. Paris: Ellipse.

Andersen, K., and Tybring-Gjedde, C., (2010) Drømmen fra Disneyland. Aftenposten, available at:


[Accessed 22. 01.2013].

Anderson B. (2006[1983]) Imagined communities. London: Verso.

Berman A. (1995) L’épreuve de l’étranger. Paris : Gallimard.

Dumont L. (1983) Essais sur l`individualisme, Paris : Éditions du Seuil.

Gleason P.(1983)”Identifying identity: A semantic History”, The Journal of American History, Vol. 69. No. 4, 910-931.

Gullestad M. (2002) “Invisible fences: Egalitarianism, nationalism and racism”, Royal anthropological institute 8, 45-63.

Gullestad M. (2004) “Blind slaves of our prejudice: Debating “culture” and “race” in Norway”, Ethnos, Vol. 69:2, 177-203.

Hustad J. (2013) “Ikkje min kulturminister“ Aftenposten 2. january 2013, available at: http://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/kronikker/Ikkje-min-kulturminister-7081291.html [Accessed 22 january 2013].

Kerney R. (2008) “Vers une herméneutique de la traduction“  in Fiasse Gaëlle (ed.) Paul Ricoeur. De l’homme faillible à l’homme capable. Paris: PUF.

Ladmiral J.-R. (1994):Traduire: théorèmes pour la traduction. Paris: Gallimard.

Luther M. (2008) Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen. Stuttgart: Reclams Universal-Bibliothek.

Luther M. (2003) Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen. transl. Gary Mann revised by Michael D. Marlowe An open letter on translating. Available at: http://www.bibleresearcher.com/luther01.html [Accessed 20. 10. 2010]

NRK, 2009. Debatt om norske verdier, 2009. [Radio-debate] NRK, NRK Nett-tv, 11th May 2009 19.00. Available at: http://www1.nrk.no/nett-tv/klipp/491227 [Accessed 05.03.2013].

Ricoeur P. (2004a) Sur la traduction, Paris: Bayard.

Ricoeur P. (2004b) Sur la traduction Transl. Eileen Brennan On translation. London/New York: Routledge.

Rosenzweig F. (1963) “Die Schrift und Luther” in Das problem des Übersetzens. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Steiner G. (1998[1975]): After Babel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Störig H. (ed.) (1963): „Einleitung“ in Das problem des Übersetzens. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.


[1] I want to thank Martin Peterson for comments on this text.

[2] I will not dwell on this here, but “imagined” is not the obverse of reality. Imagination is rather an element in the constitution of national communities, since the amount of people and the territory of the nation makes it impossible to ground community in, for instance, face-to-face relations.

[3] The Norwegian version of the article (Gullestad 2002) uses likhet, which also means “semblance” and “similarity”. And the author makes it clear that likhet covers both meanings in Norwegian. So there is an ambiguity in likhet meaning sameness (identical) and similarity at the same time. Having said that, she has chosen sameness and not similarity in the English version.


The Importance of Responsibility in Times of Crisis


The importance of responsibility in Times of Crisis


In this paper I would like to show the importance of the concept of responsibility as the foundation of ethics in times of crisis; in particular within the fields of politics and economics in the modern civilisation, marked by globalization and technological progress. I consider the concept of responsibility as the key notion in order to understand the ethical duty in a modern technological civilisation. We can indeed observe a moralization of the concept of responsibility going beyond a strict legal definition, i.e. in terms of imputability. The paper begins by discussing the humanistic foundations of such a concept of responsibility. It treats the historical origins of responsibility and it relates this concept to the concept of accountability.  On the basis of this historical determination of the concept, I would like to present the definition of the concept of responsibility as a fundamental ethical principle that has increasing importance as the foundation of the principles of governance in modern welfare states. In this context the paper discusses the extension of the concept of responsibility towards institutional or corporate responsibility, where responsibility does not only concerns the responsibility of individuals, but also deals with the responsibility of institutional collectivities. In this way the paper is based on the following structure: 1) The ethical foundation of the concept of responsibility; 2) Responsibility in technological civilisation; 3) Political responsibility for good governance in the welfare state; 4) Social responsibility of business corporations in times of globalization; 5) Conclusion and discussion: changed conditions of responsibility in modern times.

  Continue reading The Importance of Responsibility in Times of Crisis

Responsibility and Capitalism. A Phenomenological Way to Approach the Economic Crisis

1. Capitalism as the economic expression of onto-theology


It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages[2].


The words of Adam Smith, originally used to justify liberalist economy, presently sound like an act of accusation. Classic capitalism encourages pure egotism, relying on an ‘invisible hand’[3], which should promote the public interest together with the individual one. However, the hand of the market is not invisible, is pitiless. Capitalism in nothing but a pursuit of money, of more and more money. Then, as time goes by, wealth accrues in the hands of fewer and fewer people[4]. Marx already predicted the concentration of capital as a necessary consequence of free competition. However, he could not predict the birth of financial capitalism. Neo-liberalism spread over Western countries, leading to financialization, that is ‘the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies’[5].



While classic capitalism links money to production, financial capitalism is based on uncertainty[6]. Money increases or decreases according to the Stock Exchange prices. Since they are unpredictable, people could gain or lose fortunes in a day: a risky investment is nothing but gambling. In this way, the concentration of capital in a few hands comes faster. Those who are not successful go broke and damage other people: bankers and brokers lose the money of whole companies and families, shopkeepers and businessmen close their activities and dismiss people who work for them. There are not only employers and workers who pay the price, but also small capitalists. Unemployment increases and consumes decrease. In this way, even production decreases and the system itself collapses.


This is a devastating situation, depending not so much on the structure of the system, as on its moving principle. Capitalism, in its classic definition, should stimulate production and consuming, appealing to individual interest. But the course of egotism is one-way: it aims to individual affluence, regardless of its impact on the others.


Capitalist economic systems are characterized by the private ownership of property and the consensual exchange of goods and services in a free market.[7]


According to this recent definition, common both to classic and financial capitalism, egotism reveals to be their driving force. The expression ‘private ownership’ refers to individual possession and power, while ‘free market’ indicates liberty of action.


Philosophically speaking, capitalism is nothing but the economic expression of onto-theology. Exactly like the Ego of Western philosophy[8], it is regardless of the Other. The theoretical I subjects everything to its structures and the practical I cares only about its freedom. In the economic case, the Ego subdues the Other to the main category of capitalism, that is profit. The practical consequence of this philosophical statement is that an indiscriminate pursuit of money causes the exploitation of environment, animals and people. The Ego prevails on the Other, but would be powerless without Him. Profit has to be made at the expense of somebody, who cannot be too weak, otherwise he will die or become a slave. The free market disappears without a certain balance: money can circulate only among people who produce, work, and consume. This is why, if the Ego takes too much power, then will lose everything.


The current economic crisis could be seen as a critical moment when, philosophically speaking, the I is capable of annihilating the Other. The next step would be the following: a few people with a high concentration of money, laying down the law to the majority and spoiling the environment of its resources.


There are two solutions to avoid this disaster: the first is destroying capitalism and adopting another economic model, communism for instance; the second is putting limits to capitalism itself. The former corresponds, in philosophy, to the annihilation of both the I and the Other, and to the birth of an anonymous subject; the latter would be the introduction of a different relation between identity and alterity, that is responsibility. If neglecting ethics is destroying capitalism, adopting ethics will save it.



2. A general lack of ethics


The present economic crisis is the symptom of a disease. Capitalism could be seen as a living organism, whose childhood, adolescence and youth were quite healthy. Some temporary illnesses, as the crisis of 1929 and the post-war situation, did not destroy it. Capitalism is, at the moment, in its maturity. After a fast and flourishing growth, it took a definite shape: at the top there are the investors (individuals, private and public institutions), who finance with their money the whole system; they fund producers and providers of services, who distribute their products and services through mediators and sellers; in order to produce, sell and put in operation, a great amount of manpower (workers and employees) is necessary; at the end, there are the consumers, who buy products and services. Every element of capitalism has to work correctly, like the organs in a living system. If one of them has problems, it affects the other elements and the system collapses.


Capitalism is presently affected by a disease and is in great danger. The most acute stage passed away, but the organism is not regaining its health. First of all, it is necessary to identify the illness and the affected parts of the organism. Fortunately, the diagnosis is not difficult: the crisis started from financial institutions and companies (Lehman Brothers and Bernard Madoff Investment Securities, for instance). Their collapse created a sudden lack of money and damaged producers, providers and money savers in general. In this way, there were indirectly affected also mediators, sellers, workers and employees, who saw their revenues decreasing or vanishing. And, since every member of the system is a consumer, products and services were bought to a lesser extent. The crisis of consumption caused, on the other hand, a new crisis of production and service-providing[9]. It is a vicious circle generating a gap between the majority of people, who progressively lose their wealth, and a few people, who hold money and power. This gap already exists, but is becoming greater and greater.


The crisis is due, primarily, to the heads of financial capitalism, but it would be a mistake to blame only them. There are also other people who are responsible in a similar way, people who hold a great amount of money and power: executives and owners of national and multinational companies, big traders and mediators. In Italy it happened, for instance, that Calisto Tanzi, President of the food company Parmalat, was guilty of bankruptcy fraud and criminal association. His immoral policy, nourished by the connivance of some politicians and bankers, led to the ruin of a great number of investors. The bankruptcy happened in 2003, four years before the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States. Then the current crisis came, as a product of a diffused malpractice. When powerful people do not behave in a responsible way, they create a great damage to society. The crisis is not the disease of capitalism, but a serious symptom of it: the disease is what produced the crisis itself, that is a general lack of ethics.


Before giving a definition of what ‘lack of ethics’ means, it is necessary to define ethics itself. Capitalism is seen, in this paper, as the economic expression of the Ego of onto-theology. According to Levinas, the guiding principles of the Western I are intentionality and freedom: the former is a grasp of what is external to the subject; the latter is the ability to act through free will. Levinas takes position against Husserl, the father of phenomenology and of conscience as intentionality[10]. Even if his criticism could be considered exaggerated (Husserl had no intention to theorize a ‘tyrannical subject’[11]), the author of ‘Totality and Infinity’ is extraordinary in delineating ethics.


Morality is not added to the preoccupations of the I, so as to order them or to have them judged; it calls in question, and puts at a distance from itself, the I itself […]. The “vision” of the face as face is a certain mode of sojourning in a home, or […] a certain form of economic life. No human or interhuman relationship can be enacted outside of economy; no face can be approached with empty hands and closed home. Recollection in a home open to the Other –hospitality – is the concrete and initial fact of human recollection and separation[12].


Levinas points out the ‘separation’ between the Ego and the Other: the latter is not an alter-ego, another subject, but someone radically different. The other person is irreducible to the Ego. Notwithstanding this separation, there is an original relation between them: the subject approaches the other person in a particular ‘economic’ way. Since ‘economy’ means ‘management of a household’ (from the Greek words oikos, ‘house’, and nomos, ‘law’ or ‘rule’), every relation with something or somebody has to do with interiority. While the objects are included in the domestic dimension of the subject (as nourishment, tools or furniture), the other person cannot be grasped. The interhuman relationship is hospitality, is opening one own’s doors to the other.


According to Levinas, ethics is not only reception, but also responsibility. The identity of the subject is orientated to the alterity of the other, ‘without a prior commitment’[13]. Responsibility precedes freedom, it is independent from every choice. One is responsible of the other ‘despite oneself’[14], thus nobody can avoid responsibility.


From the economic point of view, it is a very important principle: it is not based on what one ‘chooses’ to do, but on what one ‘is’. Applying Levinas’ statements to capitalism, one could say the following: if one ‘is’ richer and more powerful, then one ‘will be’ more responsible, despite one’s choices. It does not mean that freedom is not important, but that responsibility founds freedom. Responsibility is the moving principle of ethics, while freedom is what makes it concrete. Behaviour depends on free will, which acts ‘according to’ or ‘against’ responsibility. This is the reason why a single action or a whole behaviour is responsible or irresponsible. Shortly, if ethics is based on responsibility, then moral activity will be responsible and immoral activity irresponsible.


Adapting Levinas’ phenomenology to economic analysis, one could state the following: intentionality and freedom exactly correspond to the ‘private ownership’ and ‘free market’ of capitalism. They are based on egotism and on an instrumental relation to the other. If egotism coincides, in capitalism, with obtaining profit, the other will be seen as a mean to make money. This relation to the other is absolutely unethical. Ethics, instead, is moved by responsibility and sees the other as the main addressee of action.


However, Levinas’ thought is too radical to be concretely applied: according to him, the subject should give itself unconditionally, because it is guilty from time immemorial[15]. Levinas’ ethics is oriented to non-reciprocity and, economically speaking, it is inapplicable. In order to move the market, a balance between one’s needs and the others’ needs is necessary. It would be better, in this case, to follow Ricoeur’s reciprocal ethics: one should see ‘oneself as another’, that is an intimate implication of otherness in identity[16]. Ethics requires both an original relation to the other (Levinas) and a practical bi-directional attitude (Ricoeur).  


The Golden Rule and the imperative of the respect owed to persons do not simply have the same field of exercise, they also have the same aim: to establish reciprocity wherever there is a lack of reciprocity[17].


The keyword is ‘respect’: respect of every person as the aim of morality, respect of oneself and the other in the same amount (it recalls the Christian principle ‘love your neighbour as yourself’[18]). ‘Reciprocal’ does not mean ‘claiming something in exchange’, since the logic of ‘exchange’ is based on egotism. Reciprocity is seen as a bi-directional respect, towards oneself and towards the other.


At this point, if ethical behaviour is respectful, unethical behaviour will be disrespectful. Unethical behaviour could be defined as a certain number of actions, fulfilling one’s aims and directly damaging (or putting in danger) the other. ‘Directly’ means that there could also be indirect consequences of one’s own action, not imputable to the agent. Unethical behaviour means betraying one’s responsibility towards the other. Phenomenology usually considers the other as ‘the other person’, but human actions do not effect only people. The other could be a human being, as well as an animal or the environment. They cannot do anything ‘in exchange’, but it does not matter, since reciprocity, in this case, does not involve exchange.


A concrete example of what unethical behaviour means is given by various bankers in the United States and United Kingdom. During the economic crisis, they violated ethics in this way: through ‘deception’ and ‘half truths given to authorities’ (lying), ‘violation of securities legislation’ and ‘allegations of fraud’, ‘misleading balance sheets’, promoting an ‘excessive bonus culture’, ‘ignoring internal corporate risk controls’, ‘conflict of interest’, ‘undue short-terminism’, ‘excessive risk-taking’, ‘callousness towards impoverished home owners’, ‘over-concentration of economic power by large banks’[19].


These actions are directly imputable to bankers, who violated both ethics and law. In this way, they caused a great damage to society, especially when financial institutions collapsed. Having an over-concentration of economic power gave an enormous amount of responsibility to the bankers, who used it, paradoxically, to escape responsibility itself.


Marx thought that the crisis of capitalism depended on over-production and concentration of money in a few hands[20]. The evolution of capitalism through financialization, together with globalization, changed the economic situation. The current crisis is not due to over-production, but to an indiscriminate pursuit of money. Capitalism is in danger not for its dialectical movement, but for a lack of ethics. The moving principle of ethics is responsibility, so ‘lack of ethics’ means ‘violation of responsibility’. Moreover, everyone is responsible of oneself and other people, and more power means more responsibility. For this reason, a lack of ethics is worst in powerful people than in common ones, because the consequences are more serious. An ethical revolution is then necessary and has to involve, primarily, the higher levels of the economic system.



3. A Phenomenological perspective on ethical revolution


An ethical revolution could be considered from several points of view. In this paper, a phenomenological perspective is adopted. ‘Phenomenology’ is here considered as an equivalent of ‘egology’: everything is considered, perceived, and felt ‘in first person’, from the point of view of the subject. On the ethical side, it has some interesting consequences. First of all, phenomenology claims an original responsibility towards the other.


The knot tied in subjectivity, which when subjectivity becomes a consciousness of being is still attested to in questioning, signifies an allegiance of the same to the other, imposed before any exhibition of the other, preliminary to all consciousness […]. This allegiance will be described as responsibility of the same for the other, as a response to his proximity before any question[21].


Ethics does not ‘proceed’ from consciousness, but ‘precedes’ it. The human subject has a moral character, so that he cannot avoid responsibility. The latter is part of his ontological (Levinas writes ‘pre-ontological’[22]) constitution. The subject is introduced, from its birth, in a relational world. When it lives distant from people, it is related with animals and nature. Loneliness is nothing but an abstraction. Using Sartre’s words, ‘the fact of the other is incontestable and touches me to the heart’[23]. Human beings are then relational (not only social) beings. The way in which they interact is based on responsibility. From the economic point of view, it is very important, because it implies the following: no one can avoid responsibility towards the other. An economic subject is responsible of the strategy chosen, of its application, and of its consequences. Violating responsibility implies paying for one’s own mistakes.


A second consequence of a phenomenological perspective is the singularity of both the ego and the other. Every subject has a common core[24], typical of human knowledge, perception, and feeling, but a concrete ego is absolutely unique. Moreover, it relates to an other who is absolutely unique as well.


Reason presupposes these singularities or particularities, not as individuals open to conceptualization, or divesting themselves of their particularity so as to find themselves to be identical, but precisely as interlocutors, irreplaceable beings, unique in their genus, faces[25].


Ethics refers to singular beings, either subjects and addressees. Every ego is different and relates to a different other. From the ethical point of view, no one can be replaced in assuming responsibility. Every person, here and now, is called to an original relation to the other. This relation does not consist in universal principles, belonging to universal subjects, and applied to universal addressees. Phenomenology does not theorize either norms, or rules. It does not matter ‘what’ the subject does (‘this act’, ‘that act’), but ‘how’ it does it (‘respecting’ or ‘not respecting’ the other). An ethical behaviour is that which follows one’s original responsibility towards one’s concrete neighbour.


In capitalism, it means that every single member of the system (executive, trader, worker, employee, customer) is not responsible for what the others do, but for what he or she does. The amount of responsibility is greater according to the amount of money and power one has. If, for instance, an employee behaves in a bad way towards a customer, he or she will have to pay for his or her single action. If an executive adopts an irresponsible strategy, he or she will have to pay not only for the action, but also for all that follows. In the case of people with great power, a single mistake has many consequences and involves many people.


Thirdly, phenomenology avoids two kinds of danger: anonymity and alienation. The uniqueness of both the ego and the other preserves them from the tyranny of universality. From the philosophical point of view, the singular avoids a subordination to the Same (or Being, or Spirit)[26]. In economy, it gets away from Hegel’s ethical State and Marx’s socialism. The difference between the former and the latter is that Idealism maintains private property, while communism abolishes it. In both cases, the ‘good’ of individuals is established by State institutions, which manipulate everything, from the economy to private life[27]. Equality is guaranteed, but at the price of making individuals anonymous beings.


Phenomenology also helps against alienation. In this case, it is better to adopt Ricoeur’s version: the thought of Husserl is inclined to alienate the other (‘all that which holds for myself holds, as I know, for all other human beings’[28]), while Levinas risks to alienate the subject (‘the-one-for-the-other goes to the extent of the-one-being-hostage-for-the-other[29]). According to Ricoeur, oneself is seen as another, implying respect on both sides.


This ethical principle is necessary to heal the plague of capitalism, that is the alienation of a part of the system. Marx thinks that there are only two classes, oppressors and oppressed. The former are capitalists, the latter proletarians. Workers are alienated by owners of companies, who make profit with the exploitation of proletarian labour[30]. However, financial capitalism is characterized by a more complex structure. Alienation usually concerns the parts of the system who own less money: workers, employees and small businessmen, for instance. Phenomenology leads, in its ethical and reciprocal form, to a balance between stronger and weaker members of the system.


Ethical capitalism, that is capitalism passing through ethical revolution, is a third way between communism and classic/financial capitalism. The former reduces all subjects to anonymity, the latter is a source of alienation. Phenomenology theorizes uniqueness (Levinas) and reciprocity (Ricoeur) between the ego and the other.


Fourthly, a phenomenological perspective warns against a pseudo-ethical behaviour. ‘Being ethical’ does not mean ‘having an ethical coat’. There are companies who put ‘something ethical’ in their product or in their policy, in order to attract investor, partners or customers. For example, an enterprise produces part of its eggs, breeding hens in open air. In this way, it attracts people who are sensitive to the living condition of animals. These customers will pay a higher price to buy this kind of eggs. However, there are also people who are content if hens are not in cages, even if they are bred indoor. And there are customers who do not care about animal conditions, but only about price. The latter will buy eggs produced by hens bred in batteries. This is exactly the case of the Italian company AIA:[31] its executives understood that better conditions for animals attract more customers. But the company is not moved by ethical reasons, otherwise it would limit the whole production to free-range eggs. Companies like AIA purely act for profit.


If the purpose of a behaviour is other than ethical, such a behaviour will be not really ethical. However, a moral appearance is useful to make money: being good pays. An ethical film enhances profit, even if the substance is unethical. First of all, not all the people are sensitive to moral behaviour, because most of them rather prefer to avoid an immoral behaviour. Secondly, they pay willingly an higher price up to a certain threshold (30%, 50% of sustainable production, for instance). This threshold is not clearly determinable and is different case by case.[32] This is why companies do something ethical, as much as it does not hinder profit.


Phenomenology rejects such a kind of behaviour. ‘Being ethical’ means ‘acting responsibly’. When a company follows a moral conduct, it does not limit itself to some good actions. Ethics is neither charitable, nor instrumental. An ethical producer of eggs, for instance, breeds chicken in open air, provides them with healthy food, leaves them space enough to live comfortably, heals them when they are sick, avoids to raise too many hens if good conditions cannot be guaranteed. This kind of behaviour is ethical because it respects both customers and animals: it provides buyers with eggs of the best quality and, at the same time, allows chicken to have a good life. This kind of behaviour is, philosophically speaking, oriented towards the other.


If moral behaviour is, on the contrary, money-oriented, it will not be moral at all. Since current capitalism aims to profit, it meets ethics only by accident. Ethics is usually a limitation to profit: the “obsessive materialism which capitalist economy promote is one of the weaknesses of capitalism when it is considered from an ethical point of view”[33]. An ethical behaviour is not necessarily ascetical and includes material goods and pleasures: in order to avoid alienation, the ego has to preserve itself. Capitalism does not purely promote self-preservation, but an indiscriminate pursuit of materialism. As the economic expression of onto-theology, capitalism is ruled by egotism.


Phenomenology goes beyond the tyranny of the Same, of the universal subject, of indiscriminate property and freedom. Stating the importance of ethics, of original responsibility, of uniqueness, phenomenology does not destroy the subject, but makes it ‘singular’. Definitely, it has to renounce to its tyrannical power, but not to itself. What is here suggested is not to alienate the ego in behalf of the other. Building one’s own identity is necessary to self-preservation and, moreover, to have ‘something to give’. If the subject is alienated, it cannot offer anything to the other. Ethics should not imply a fission of one’s identity[34], but an equilibrated inclination to giving.


The economic consequence of such a perspective is not the end of capitalism. If capitalism is based on egotism and egotism is ‘partially’ preserved by phenomenology, then capitalism will be ‘partially’ preserved by phenomenology. Phenomenology does not accept capitalism in its current form, because it is ‘wholly’ based on egotism, that is indiscriminate freedom and property. However, it accepts a different form of capitalism, which is only ‘partially’ ruled by egotism. This new kind of system is called ‘ethical capitalism’ and is based on respectful freedom and property.


Defining what is and what is not ‘respectful’ is the most difficult task to accomplish, due to the open character of phenomenology. Phenomenology is not a normative system, but a perspective. For this reason, it does not suggest a precise behaviour, but a different way to approach the world. Classic and financial capitalism are based on individual interest; ethical capitalism is based on responsibility. One’s freedom and property are not destroyed or ‘limited’ by the other’s freedom and property. One’s freedom and property is directed both to self-preservation and preservation of the other, that is the environment and its inhabitants. Ethical capitalism is not self-oriented, but other-oriented: it is directed both to the other and to the self as another. Responsibility is opposed to alienation, because it is bi-directional. This is why a responsible behaviour, on large scale, could save capitalism from its gaps and from its ruin.


[1] Cf. Hein, E., The Macroeconomics of Finance-dominated Capitalism and its Crisis, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012, p. 1.

[2] Smith, A., The Glasgow edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 2a, edited by R.H. Cambell and A.S. Skinner, Oxford: Claredon Press, 1976, pp. 26–7.

[3] Cf. ibid.,  p. 456.

[4] ‘It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals’ (Marx, K., Capital [Cap.], Volume 1, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954, p. 586).

[5] Epstein, G. A., ‘Introduction: Financialization and the World Economy’, in Epstein, G. A. (ed.), Financialization and the World Economy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005, p. 3.

[6] In 1938, George Edwards already individuated finance as an element of instability: the current form of capitalism converts real equity in financial one. Edwards was even afraid of a conspiracy by financial institutions. See Edwards, G. W., The Evolution of Finance Capitalism, London: Longmans Green, 1938.

[7] Bishop, J. D., ‘Ethics and Capitalism. A Guide to the Issues’, in Bishop, J. D. (ed.), Ethics and Capitalism, University of Toronto Press Incorporated: Toronto-Buffalo-London, 2000, p. 4.

[8] ‘Ontology as first philosophy is a philosophy of power’ (Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority [TI], Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 9).

[9] For a specific description of this mechanisms, see Hein 2012.

[10] Levinas criticizes the thought of Husserl in several writings. Cf., for example, TI, pp. 109-110, 121-126; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence [OB], Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 8, 33, 63-66; Id., Discovering Essence With Husserl, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 74-75, 124-126, 176-177.

[11] Husserl considers the Other as an Ego-subject, but neither identical, nor subject to the Ego. ‘Each has its place from which he sees the physical things present; and, accordingly, each has different physical-things appearances. Also, for each of the fields of actual perception, actual memory, etc., are different, leaving aside the fact that intersubjectively common objects of consciousness in those field are intended to as to having different modes, different manners of apprehension, different degrees of clarity, and so forth’ (Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book  [Ideas I], The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982, pp. 55-56).

[12] TI, p. 172.

[13] OB, p. 153.

[14] Ibid., pp. 51, 54-56, 74.

[15] Ibid., pp. 26, 51, 87.

[16] Cf. Ricoeur, P., Oneself as Another, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1992, p. 3.

[17] Ibid., p. 225.

[18] Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27.

[19] Thomas, R., ‘Ethics – or the Lack of Ethis – in the Global Financial Crisis 2007-2010’, in Rosamund M. Thomas (ed.), Business Ethics, Cambridge: Ethics International Press, 2011, p. 75.

[20] Cf. Cap., p. 587.

[21] OB, pp. 25-26.

[22] Ibid., pp. 43-44, 78.

[23] Sartre, J.-P-, Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, New York: Philosophical Library, 1956, p. 367. Even if Sartre is better known as an existentialist, Being and Nothingness can be considered as a phenomenological masterwork. Anyway, the constitutive inter-subjectivity of human beings was first stated by Heidegger, according to which ‘being-in-the-world’ (in-der-Welt-sein) is also ‘being-with’ (Mit-sein). Cf. Heidegger, M., Being and Time, State University of New York Press: Albany, 1996, p. 112.

[24] The phenomenological epoché, theorized by Husserl, searches for a pure consciousness, abstracting from the concrete Ego-subjects. ‘It therefore remains as the “phenomenological residuum,” as a region of being which is of essential necessity quite unique and which can indeed become the field of a science of a novel kind: phenomenology’ (Ideas I, pp. 65-66).

[25] TI, p. 252.

[26] Cf. TI, pp. 46-47, 143, 269-271.

[27] Cf. Hegel, G. W. F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, §§ 257-258; Marx, K.- Engels, F., The Communist Manifesto [Manifesto], New York: Russell and Russell, 1963, Chap. 2. According to Hegel, the State is the reality of reason and will, which coincides with individual freedom. According to Marx, communism implies centralization of credit, means of communication, production and education in the hands of the State. Both authors theorize, in order to guarantee equality, a strong Statism.

[28] Ideas I, p. 55.

[29] OB, p. 141.

[30] Cf. Manifesto, pp. 25-26; Marx, K., Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, New York: International Publishers, 1964, pp. 108-111.

[31] Products numbered B5110, for instance, come from hens farming to barn, while B5114 are free-range eggs. The other products come from hens bred in batteries. This is why, in 2001, AIA was condemned by the Italian Antitrust. The company showed on its egg-packages images of hens eating on lawns and the proposition ‘uova fresche allevate a terra’ (‘fresh eggs bred ashore’). It could led customers to think that they were free-range eggs, while hens were crowded into big barns (intensive livestock farming).

[32] Cf. Trudel, R.- Cotte, J., ‘Does It Pay To Be Good?’, MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 50, 2, 2009, pp. 66-68.

[33] Groarke, L., ‘Can Capitalism Save Itself? Some Ruminations on the Fate of Capitalism’, in Bishop 2000, p. 204.

[34] Cf. OB, pp. 49, 104, 141, 180, 185. 


The idea of University in a Cosmopolitan Perspective


My focus here will be on the university. I do not so much have the Danish Copenhagen Business School (CBS) or MIT in Boston in mind as other big universities, both in Denmark and abroad. It is perhaps precisely because the universities called business schools have business as their main focus that they have been able to integrate humanistic disciplines without severe criticism from outside. In Denmark, for example, the threat against the humanities is much stronger in universities such as Copenhagen University, Aarhus University and the University of Southern Denmark than at CBS. Abroad we witness attacks on philosophy similar to the one we witnessed at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in 2010, only the attacks are worse. In Hungary, for example, in the fall of 2010, the new director of the philosophical institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, nominated by the new conservative government that also tried to enslave the press, has dismissed four philosophers and disqualified 15 out of 23 colleagues as “professionally unsuitable” (in German translation: fachlich ungeeignet). In addition, a police investigation has been initiated against the famous philosopher Agnes Heller and the vice-president of the Philosophical Society, Mihaly Vajda, for having received financial support from the former government. In England, a Centre for European Philosophy at the University of Middlesex in London was closed in the spring of 2010, and later on transferred to Kingston University. Moreover, in the spring of 2011, the Philosophy department at the university of Keele was threatened to be closed, but was prolonged for the next year after strong international protests.

For sure, this is only the top of the iceberg. Programs in the humanities disappear or are reduced in many universities today, and there is a worldwide serious threat to the humanities in the universities and scientific academies. In addition, many universities are increasingly turning into management institutions. In light of these tendencies, a fundamental question arises: What is a good university? Since a university is an institution, let us first consider the even more fundamental question: What is a good institution?

2. The ideas of an institution

Paul Ricœur defines the idea of an institution in his book Oneself as Another as “the good life with and for others, in just institutions.”1 What does he mean by “just institutions”? For Ricœur just institutions are neither about face-to-face relationships, nor about being submitted to domination. Rather, they allude to communities where everybody in principle is on an equal footing with everyone else. Justice consists in the fact that we recognize each other’s equal rights. Here Ricœur refers to the distinction elaborated by Hannah Arendt between power-in-common and domination. The latter goes back to Max Weber’s idea in Economy and Society that the relation of domination, Herrschaft, distinguishes the political institution of the State from all other institutions. Characteristic for this relation is that it separates the governing from the governed, and is based on a monopoly of violence. However, according to Arendt, the power-in-common is different. As she says in her most famous work, The Human Condition, power-in-common stems directly from the category of action and is “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things and matter” and so “correspond[s] to the human condition of plurality”.2

To Ricœur this concept of plurality is important if we want to understand the just institution, because it “suggests the extension of interhuman relations to all those who are left outside of the face-to-face encounter of an “I” and a “you” and remain third parties”3. This third party is always “the inclusive middle term within the plurality that constitutes power”, and will never be face in the sense of Emanuel Levinas: the other whom I encounter. It is anonymous in the literal sense of the term, having no name. While its power is fragile, “since it exists only as long as people act together and vanishes when they disperse”4, this fragility “is not the raw and naked vulnerability of mortals as such but the second order fragility of institutions and of all the human affairs gravitating around them.”5

However, Ricœur agrees with Arendt that this action in concert is invisible, “because it is so extensively covered over by relations of domination, and that it is brought to light only when it is about to be destroyed, laying the field open for violence”.6 Moreover, “this is why this constitutive element can be discerned only in its discontinuous irruptions onto the public stage when history is its most tumultuous.”7 Here Ricœur might think of what happened when the Youth revolt broke out in ‘68. Nevertheless, he seems convinced that however weak it may be “it is power, as wanting to live and acting together, that brings to the ethical aim the point of application of its indispensable third dimension: justice”.

The idea of justice is here both a vision of the good life and a demand for a social order, a distributive operation that is not only economic, but also concerns the apportionment of roles, task and advantages and disadvantages. What is just is “between the good and the legal”.8 In other words, “a consideration of the institution is part of the ethical aim in its full scope”.9

Another keyword here is equality. As Ricœur declares, “equality, however it is modulated, is to life in institutions what solicitude is in interpersonal relations”.10 He concludes: “Because of this, the sense of justice takes nothing away from solicitude; the sense of justice presupposes it, to the extent that it holds persons to be irreplaceable. Justice in turn adds to solicitude, to the extent that the field of application of equality is all of humanity”.11

I believe Arendt and Ricœur are right in claiming that we must distinguish between domination built on violence, on the one hand, and power of common action built on a ordered plurality, on the other. A system of domination is not simply identical to a just institution, the latter of which is action-in-concert according to common rules. It follows that although in practice there is no pure action-in-common without its inclusion in a system of domination, a criticism of an institution for being purely repressive and unjust must rely on the impossibility of the members of the institution to find a minimum (or too little) of themselves acting therein. It must rely on the impossibility of recognizing in them their own participation in a common action. Thus, in this regard we can say that an institution in which we cannot find ourselves or too little of ourselves is an unjust institution.

3. The University crises in ‘68 and now

As examples of institutions, Ricœur mentions “people, nation, region and so forth”,12 (p. 194), but according to Arendt, they comprise much more. Institutions are what she calls “political bodies”, and must include every action in concert inside a people, a nation and the like.13 Consequently, every educational body in a society is an institution. From this perspective, when Ricœur writes about the university in the sixties, he writes about an institution, and the critique he directs at the French university system is precisely that it can no longer fulfil the condition of an institution where its members can see themselves as acting in common.

In the preface to a book on Concepts of the University, Ricœur> describes the sociological background of the youth revolt in ‘68 at the universities.14 He mentions the fact that universities at the time had developed into enormous institutions that had to educate a mass of students, which was very expensive for the society at large. On the one hand, the state could not spend money on students without demanding useful results in return. On the other, students could not accept to spend their time in these institutions without demanding personal development. In other words, the political power wanted to gain some goods for society by their investment in the universities, whereas the students wanted to act in common with teachers and each other in order to obtain both knowledge and culture for their personal and social life. Ricœur sees in this conflict a contradiction between two demands placed on a modern university. It should be a liberal university, i.e., an institution of research allowing criticism and testing of new ideas, something that would be impossible if governing authorities would prescribe the goals of the research. And, it should prepare the students for the qualifications that the society needs for its production and administration.

This contradiction, which in the sixties brought the universities into a deep crisis, is not very different from the contradiction that we experience today, in the society in general and the universities in particular. It is a contradiction between the demand of the universities to explore the material and social reality and ‘tell the truth’, on the one side, and the demand that they through research and education help to qualify researchers and students for the competition on the world market, on the other. Indeed, in light of the similarities of the two situations, we might learn something by considering what Ricœur has to say about the aforementioned contradiction. He proposes three measures for overcoming the crisis:

First, Ricœur proposes a reform of the universities that avoids both the constraints of pure utility and the destructive rejection of organizations. This renewed liberal university shall both permit free research and integrate researchers in the society, so that they can participate in a responsible way in the scientific, cultural, technological and spiritual adventure of our time.

Second, he imagines a reform that can give the students access to participation in the governance of the universities. Professors, assistants and students should be able to share their activities in discussions about the orientation, development and sanction of studies. Ricœur knew that such an educational relationship would be difficult because of its asymmetrical character, viz. because its aim is to apply the competence and experience of the teacher in the learning process. However, he believed that “the student brings something: talents and tastes, acquired knowledge and parallel knowledge, and particularly a wish of personal accomplishment that only partly can be satisfied by instruction, job training and the acquisition of a culture for leisure.15 Thus, by his or her partial contribution to the student’s project of accomplishment, the teacher still learns. According to Ricœur, he is “really taught by his students and receives from them the opportunity and the permission to realize his own desire for cognition and knowledge. This is the reason why one must even say – to paraphrase Aristotle – that education is the shared act of the master and the student.”16 Moreover, convinced of the idea that the university is the only institution in the modern society in which the most critical thinking can be expressed, Ricœur even imagines that this shared action, if it becomes successful in the universities, might be a model for the society as a whole. It may assist in demolishing its authoritarian institutions.

Third, he pictures a reform accommodating what he calls “zones of transparency between the university institution and the extra-university world”, which are self-governing, creating a connection between the university culture and the non-university culture. Indeed, universities face a non-university culture in the form of everything from advertising, songs in different media and movies, to pure propaganda. This culture is what most people live by in the leisure-time permitted by modern industrial work. Therefore, it is the task of researchers not only to be critical in their own domain of research, but also of the cultural activities outside the world of research. By the same token, criticism should not be one-way communication, according to Ricœur. Rather, universities should also be listening to criticism from non-university, such as from artists and businesspeople, etc.

Ricœur saw in many ways the youth revolt in the universities as a legitimate revolt against an unjust institution in which the students cannot find themselves. Thus, he sees it as a “cultural revolution” against a system of domination, i.e. a system without space for action-in-common. First, it is a revolt against capitalism, not only because it fails in creating social justice, but because it has succeeded all too well in seducing people by its inhuman project of quantitative well-being. Secondly, it is a revolt against the bureaucracy, not only because it is heavy and ineffective, but because it transforms people into slaves to powers, structures and hierarchical relationships. Finally, Ricœur sees it as a revolt against the “nihilism of a society that, like a cancerous tissue has no other goal than growth; a revolt facing a society of non-sense”.17 Simultaneously, however, it is a revolt that “intended to promote creation of goods, ideas and values rather than their consummation”.18

This is the background to Ricœur’s famous declaration that “it is necessary to remain revolutionary when making reform”.19 And in the seventies, many universities were in fact reformed more or less according to the ideas that Ricœur had formulated so clearly. However, perhaps because there was in the youth of that time too little understanding of the necessity of universities as stable institutions extreme individualism and anarchism often brought the reforms to fail.20

Today we are back in a situation where universities suffer from a contradiction between search for academic freedom for researchers, teachers and students, on the one hand, and political domination through the demand for market utility, on the other. Moreover, today it is not so much the mass of students that destabilize the universities as the mass of bureaucrats, the latter of which transfer the university system into a colossus with feet of clay. Therefore, when students and teachers in our days cannot find themselves in their universities it is because they are often confronted with mega-schools in the form of top-governed management institutions. While they could find themselves in a liberal university, where students and professors in learning and research could experience participation in common action, they cannot find themselves in the management system of domination and repression into which our universities are now increasingly transformed.

4. The Humboldt model

We should recall that the idea of the university, which exists under so bad conditions today, is more than two hundred years old. In 1798, Immanuel Kant described in his book The Conflict of the Faculties, the relationship between the four faculties belonging to university in his time, including that of theology, law, medicine and philosophy. He describes the first three of these as “the higher faculties”. They are considered very useful for the government, but not free. The only entirely free faculty is “the lower faculty” of philosophy (later called the faculty of humanities). Kant believes that although there will always be a conflict between the faculties that are considered useful for the government and the faculty of philosophy which aims at truth, the higher faculties and the lower faculty may in the end move closer to each other. He concludes by saying that “it could well happen that the last would someday become the first (the lower faculty would be the higher) – not indeed in authority, but in counselling the authority (the government). For the government may find the freedom of the philosophy faculty, and the increased insight gained from its freedom, a better means for achieving its ends than its own absolute authority.”21

Interestingly, this was exactly what happened a few years later. In 1810, the linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt as minister of education in Prussia created a new university in Berlin and reformed the whole educational system. In the new university, the faculty of philosophy became the higher faculty and a philosopher, J.G. Fichte, became its first rector in 1811, later on to be replaced by another philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. Its goal was the general cultivation, allgemeine Bildung, of the individual. Objective knowledge was from now on to be combined with subjective formation (Bildung) of each individual and, as Humboldt said, with “the moral culture of the nation” (die moralische Kultur der Nation).22 The Humboldt model expressed the idea of the humanities, and in particular of philosophy, as the leading sciences. It is this idea that today is seriously challenged by the notion of the management university.

The question is what we can do to oppose this pseudo-university. First, we can analyse its condition, which apparently justifies the end of the Humboldt era. Thereafter, we can show how the inner contradiction of the management university sooner or later must raise a demand for another university, which, according to the dream of Kant, is both allowed to telling the truth and being highly useful for society.

5. Analyses of the condition

The condition for the establishment of the management university was already exposed by Jean-François Lyotard in 1979. In his book The postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (translated into English in 1984), he described the developed societies of his time in terms of ‘the postmodern condition’. This postmodernism does not imply a new cultivation integrating the sciences in a new way while still preserving the humanities as an essential part of the whole, but rather opposes the very focus on cultivation in order to replace it by what Lyotard calls ‘performativity’. Lyotard’s diagnosis was that more and more research and education would be justified by their performativity.23 The term ‘performativity’ was new both in French and in English when the book was published, but it relates to ‘performance’ and means efficiency in the performance.

Lyotard’s analysis is, I would claim, more true today than when he presented it. In the beginning of the 21st century we witness how the educational systems, first in the United States and later in many other countries, are increasingly turned into one single end, that of performativity. Nowadays it is common to speak about efficiency, a goal which is possible to measure by tests, including national and public tests in schools, and stimulate by means of competition between classes and schools.

6. The inner contradiction of the Competition State

Now, if you ask the question ‘why performativity?’, the answer is ‘because of the necessary competition on the world market’. The Danish political scientist Ove Kaj Pedersen is right in claiming that today the idea of the welfare state is increasingly replaced by the idea of ‘the state of competition’. In his view, the welfare state, in which everybody should be respected as an irreplaceable individual, could not be realized because it was too expensive. Further, it was not able to prevent the weakest from being dominated by the strongest and, consequently, could not assure that everybody was protected by the same rights within a democratic system. Instead, it has become necessary to accept that everybody is an egoist, because this egoism is useful in the competition that has become the condition of all social life.24

What follows from this is that the task of the educational systems in schools and universities is redefined. It is less an education to democracy and social justice and more an education to national and international competition. Moreover, schools and universities are now obliged to enter into competition with each other and with other agents on the market to which they “sell knowledge”. In this competition, human sciences, and in particular philosophy, have apparently no raison d’être. Human sciences and critical philosophy more than any other discipline is considered useless and even dangerous for competition. For this reason, the state of competition suffers from an inner contradiction that is no less serious than the inner contradiction of the welfare state, namely, that it undermines by itself the social cohesion that is supposed to make it acceptable to everybody. In this state, people do not believe in the democratic education of citizens and do not feel responsible for the common good. Everybody can follow his or her interest within the frames defined by those in charge. In addition, belonging to this ideology is the presumption that great leaders are able to disregard their personal interests and establish the social coherence by their control of every common activity. It follows that only they have the task of thinking and acting for the common good. But the question is: how can such altruistic leaders be found amongst the people who have only learnt to think of their own interests and not about the common good? It seems unimaginable.

This is the contradiction: the state of competition, which is supposed to work without people being educated to take care of the common good and mutually recognize the rights of each other, nevertheless needs such an education in order to find good leaders amongst them and justify the destitution of bad leaders. Moreover, it must establish democratic elections and control of the leaders. In other words, the state of competition simultaneously rejects democracy and needs it. The criticism we can and must insist upon is therefore that no society that needs a social and moral coherence can do without education in democracy, and that society therefore must submit the competition to a democratic co-determination.

7. Democracy and cosmopolitanism

This insight is stressed by Martha C. Nussbaum in her recent book Not for profit: Why democracy needs humanities. She calls for a fight against the growing contempt for the humanities in universities and school systems. Nussbaum argues that this contempt results in the youth acquiring less and less knowledge about the ideas that are necessary in order to develop into democrats, i.e. autonomous and critical but also realistic citizens who recognize the values of a life together with others – not only national fellow citizens, but also foreigners from other parts of the world. This is exactly what they do not learn, Nussbaum argues, if they only learn how to get material profit and how to be most efficient on the world market. Instead, they have to learn that “a strong economy is a means to human ends, not an end in itself”, since “most of us would not choose to live in a prosperous nation, that had ceased to be democratic.”25 They have to learn to be responsible persons and to respect others as having equal rights independently of colour, religion, sex, and so on, and to assess what is good and bad for one’s own country as a whole as well as the kind of role it may play jointly with other countries and people in an increasingly complex globalized world.

Nussbaum advocates an education for cosmopolitan citizenship and points in a chapter entitled “Citizens of the World” to the fact that “we live in a world in which people face one another across gulfs of geography, language and nationality. More than at anytime in the past, she says, we all depend on people we have never seen, and they depend on us. The problems we need to solve – economic, environmental, religious and political – are global in their scope.”26 But if we shall handle them, we must involve “the contributions of history, geography, the interdisciplinary studies of culture, the history of law and political systems, and the study of religion – all interacting with one another.”27

According to Lyotard, grand narratives no longer work in the justification or understanding of society. However, this is no longer true. It might be true when it comes to grand stories that were used to legitimize authoritarian regimes such as the narratives of Nazism and Stalinism. However, Nussbaum is right when claiming that today “we need world history and global understanding for reasons that go beyond what is required to understand our own nation.”28 In other words, we need a cosmopolitan story of our world as basis of our universities.


1 Oneself as Another, The University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 172, The English translator has put brackets round ‘good life’, because Ricœur puts brackets round “la vie bonne” in the French text in order to indicate that it does not mean “la bonne vie” which is ‘the pleasant life’, but that is an ethical and more precisely an Aristotelian philosophical concept. In English it is common to use the term as a philosophical expression so it does not need to be put in brackets.

2 Hannah Arendt: The human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958, p. 7.

3 Oneself as Another, p. 195.

4 Ibid., p. 196

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 197.

7 Ibid.

8 Paul Ricœur: « Le juste entre le légal et le bon » in Lectures 1, 1991, Seuil, Paris, pp. 176 – 195 (not translated into English).

9 Oneself as Another, p. 201.

10 Ibid., p. 202.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 9.

13 The Human Condition, p. 9.

14 Paul Ricœur : ”Trois ripostes à la crise universitaire”, in Conceptions de l’Université, eds. Jacques Drèze et Jean Debelle, Editions Universitaires, Paris, 1969; published in Le Monde 17.1.1969

15 Lectures 1, p. 382.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Paul Ricœur: ”Réforme et révolution dans l’Université”, Lectures 1, p.380.

19 Paul Ricœur: ”Réforme et révolution dans l’Université”, Lectures 1, p. 381.

20 Ricœur himself was very disappointed by this development in France, and he never again wrote about a reform of universities, see P. Kemp: “Ricoeur and education: Ricoeur’s implied philosophy of education” in Ricoeur across the disciplines, ed. by Scott Davidson. Continuum, New York, 2010, p. 181-194.

21 Immanuel Kant: The conflict of the Faculties/ Der Sreit der Fakultäten [bilingual edition], translated by Mary J. Gregor, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1979, p. 59.

22 Wilhelm von Humboldt: Über die innere und äussere Organisation der höheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten in Berlin” in Schriften zur Politik und zum Bildungswesen, Wissenschaftlische Buchgesellschaft, Darmstandt, 1964, p. 255.

23 Jean-François Lyotard: La condition postmoderne, Rapport sur le savoir, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1979, Chapters 11 and 12 (English translation: The Postmodern Condition, Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press, Manchesater, 1984, chapter 11 and 12).

24 Ove K. Pedersen : Konkurrence Staten, Hans Reitzels forlag, Copenhagen, 2011.

25 Martha C. Nussbaum: Not for profit. Why democracy needs humanities, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, p. 10-11.

26 Ibid., p. 79-80.

27 Ibid., p. 86-87.

28 Ibid. . p. 81-82.