Category: Reflections

Can Ethics be the First Philosophy?

Emmanuel Levinas is a unique philosopher in the 20th century. He redefines traditional philosophy by radically re-thinking it from the point of view of justice, which in his understanding originates in the encounter with the other. For Aristotle, the “first philosophy” is metaphysics: what is the meaning of the verb “to be.” This leads to a whole system of ontology that serves as the background to 2500 years of metaphysical thought.
Levinas suggests a radical turn. “This is the question of the meaning of being: not the ontology of the understanding of that extraordinary verb, but the ethics of its justice. The question ‘par excellence’ or the question of philosophy. Not ‘Why being rather than nothing?’, but how being justifies itself.”

Heidegger made simple.

The photo above was taken during Heidegger’s Paris visit in 1955. The photo shows him with Lacan and their wives in Lacan’s house in Guitrancourt, near Paris. During the visit in Paris, Heidegger delivered the lecture ‘What is Philosophy?’ at Cerisy-la-sale. Left to right: Heidegger, Axelos, Lacan, Jean Beaufret (recipient of the Letter on Humanism), Elfriede Heidegger, Sylvia Bataille (by this time married to Lacan). You can find more on Heideggers biography here.  The Basic Question: What is Being? Heidegger’s main work, Being and Time (1927), begins with a traditional ontological question, which he calls the Seinsfrage, or the “question of Being.” He uses...

Nietzsche: A look back.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is one of the most important philosophers of the last 200 years. He foresaw the downfall of Europe, even though he died in 1900, and he influenced many thinkers in the 20th century. Heidegger, for instance, published four volumes on Nietzsche. He is commonly seen as an existentialist philosopher, but he can be viewed easily as a precursor to postmodernity as well. What are Nietzsche’s central ideas, and how relevant is he today? The  Death  of God Friedrich Nietzsche wages war against a form of nihilism that, in his view, has grown inside a dead religion. Western philosophy,...

Emmanuel Levinas on Peace

The last entry on Carl Schmitt reflected on the implications of a realpolitik where the sovereign state is necessary to protect us from the hatred that can erupt so easily in human relationships. On one extreme end of this spectrum is war as the ultimate option to defend collective interests against enemies. What is on the other end? Can we find a viable political philosophy driven by a vision of peace? The Root of Ethics in the Encounter with the Other. This entry is dedicated to Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), another European thinker who lived at the same time as Schmitt, but who developed very different...

Carl Schmitt on Political Power

Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) is one of the most influential conservative political thinkers of the 20th century. His work remains very controversial, but his ideas allow us to think through some of the old problems of political philosophy in a fresh light. What can we learn from him today, in the midst of the current  transformation of the political sphere? The nature of political power At the core of the political process are always considerations of power. Politicians may have a vision of what should be done, but without the power to affect a change in this direction the vision is useless. So what...

Kierkegaard: The Inwardness of Existence

Kierkegaard’s works are interesting to read, they have a freshness and intensity that separates them from other philosophical writings. It is easy to get lost in his aphorisms – but what are the main features of his thought? I will examine his view of becoming a Christian, his idea of a “subjective truth,” and the “dialectic of existence.”  

You are my Creator, but I am your Master.

“Nature” has different meanings: It is the horizon of civilization, it is the material from which everything is made, and it is the origin to which everything wants to return. By “nature” we also mean the basic form which determines what something is. Aristotle thought that this natural form also determines the purpose something has. And finally, we human beings have a nature too – but how do we define it?

What does it mean to have rights?

When thinking about what it means to have a right it is sometimes useful to replace the word “right” with another word that expresses something similar. Let’s review some of these words in order to get a more differentiated notion of what it means to have rights. Each of these translations only capture an aspect of what we usually understand by the word “right,” but taken together they give a more comprehensive meaning of the concept of “rights”. This overview is partially based on the work of the influential American Jurist Wesley Hohfeld (1879-1918). Hohfeld’s analytic framework Wesley Hohfeld was a Harvard law professor who...

Reason and Arguments

This article will introduce the plural to the monumental concept of rationality. Rather than treating it as a fixed noun, I suggest we should contextualize “reason” and look at propositions and their supporting arguments instead. “Reasons” are crystallized statements found in the process of thinking about something “real,” which means that there is – beyond the real – an underlying psychic process-like fluidity which is itself without pre-determined direction. I am skeptical towards Hegel’s optimistic idea that “the real is rational.”  More research is necessary in order to understand the relations between reality and mind, and in the end, we will still...

What are markets? Political and philosophical reflections.

The market mechanism, taught to millions of business and economics students, is not a simple model. Even though it has been studied extensively, the political discussion about the role and applicability of markets often seems confused. A deep fact/value problem distorts the debates about markets and democracy as the cornerstones of Western societies. Is the market mechanism a normative model, a necessary ingredient of efficient economic systems, or does it only refer to a set of scientific laws that describe how a society’s economic activity organizes itself? The following points are food for discussion; I am not advocating a particular economic philosophy. I have already...

Theology in Freud and Lacan

 A Short Summary of the Arguments. In the struggle to find what sustains the psychological reality of religious belief as well as its deep rootedness, psychoanalysis loses its initial hostility against the phenomenon. Religion becomes a fascinating field to study from the psychoanalytic point of view. The development of the psychoanalytic interpretation of religion from Freud to Lacan shows how psychoanalytic theory itself was transformed through this task. Analysis of the religious phenomenon leads to the core of Lacanian theory, which is the constitutive function of the signifier in relation to the subject. Freud’s psychoanalytic study of Moses and Monotheism is the...

Ecological Thinking?

Ecology is the study of interactions among organisms and their environment. One can even think about the human race in ecological terms, and this form of thinking is vital if we want to have a future. If we let our thinking transgress the boundaries of scientific disciplines, ecology becomes philosophy enhanced with information. Ecology stands for our relationship with nature. Philosophers have thought about this question  for a long time, but now the debate is no longer academic, it has become very urgent because it threatens our survival. We have to throw out distinctions that have worked well for a...

In God we trust? Money, Debt, and Love.

The following comments are based on David Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” 2011. His basic assumption is that economies did not evolve from barter systems; from the beginnings of civilization there were always elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods. Economies started with debt, and we still operate in an environment configured by debt, guilt, sins, and the search for redemption. He also shows that economy, anthropology, and psychology are more closely linked than we previously thought, and he uses examples across cultures and history to demonstrate his ideas.  Since guilt is also a central question for...

Complex systems – a new scientific frontier?

Many of our most pressing challenges, like managing ecosystems and economies, or preventing mass epidemics and market crashes – require a better understanding of complex systems. In recent years, the science of “complexity” came into existence and has grown rapidly. “Complexity” has a precise meaning in science. We call a system “complex” if the whole transcends the parts and if multiple agents participate in it. Most complex systems consist of diverse entities that interact in space and in time; they can be real or virtual. Examples of complex systems are ecosystems, cities, universities, or the stock market. Systems that are merely based on a feedback loop, like automatic temperature regulators, are not complex. Complicated systems are also not necessarily complex. Complicated systems may have diverse parts or many variables, but they are not adaptive.

Comments on Althusser

Althusser, who died in 1990, became a very influential French thinker – not only because he was a teacher for many intellectuals, but also because of his outspoken Marxist and anti-humanist opinions. He is known as a philosopher who tried to develop a structuralist version of Marxism. With the general demise of Marxist thinking, however, Althusser’s influence in the intellectual debates has faded away. For most of his life, he was an intellectual ally of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, from whom he took some inspirations especially in regards to his theory of ideology. He was a very clear thinker who was not afraid to take a radical and critical position.

Time and Consciousness?

We live in a world where everything seems to speed up. Everybody is pressed for time; the pressures to perform, to consume, to “manage” time effectively, or to “have fun,” overwhelm our need for rest and contemplation. Will the future bring us even more acceleration? Are we going somewhere with all this change? And further: what is our relationship to time itself? Can we become more conscious of the flow of time and thereby separate ourselves from the addictive absorption in current affairs?

At the root of the last 500 years of scientific and intellectual history lie the abstractions of space and time. The progress we witnessed over the last centuries begins with our ability to represent space three-dimensionally. This historical progress began in the early 15th century.

Emergence

We are currently experiencing a paradigm shift in scientific thinking and explanation, away from reductionist and constructivist approaches. This shift is the result of the introduction of computers and the internet. Scientific researchers are now capable of collecting and processing much more information than ever before, and advanced modeling techniques allow them to develop and test scientific theories in ways that were simply not possible 20 or even 10 years ago. Traditionally, physics operated with a reductionist approach: it breaks down complex phenomena into simpler parts that can be studied independently. Once the basic laws were understood, scientists thought they...

Subject, Ego, Person

This short essay, written in August and September 2001, could also be entitled “The Religious Roots of  Our Concept of the Person.” I argue that: we need to make a distinction between “something” and “someone;” this was done in the past through a religious definition of the origin of the human being; it has been secularized into the concept of the person, The term expresses the internal relationship of “having a nature.” Therefore we are not just “something”, we are “someone,” and as such not entirely subjected to nature. Since the distinction itself is not natural, it works only if...