Teun

@teunvanson

Writing is hard. #100days

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29.

Wow, I skipped an entire three days of writing. I think I've already made peace with the non-obligatory nature of this exercise. In any case, if I'm not determined to strictly write every day, I am definitely determined to continue to 100 posts. So I'll blast past 100 and continue until I actually have a hundred of these things. Right now there's so much on my mind that I don't know what I'm going to write about. That's not such a bad thing though. It's mostly my studies that occupy my thoughts. I've just had exams for History of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, and Social and Political Philosophy, and both have profoundly interesting ideas that help me a lot in understanding the world. I already talked about Aristotle's conception of god in a previous post. In social philosophy, I'm fascinated by French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. But in order to describe him, I kinda first have to describe Hegel, because that's what he's reacting to (that's how it goes in philosophy, you can't really understand one without understanding all of them).

So Hegel said that humans, with all their desires, continuously try to appropriate everything around them. They want to tame nature and include as much as possible into their 'oikos', their household. This appropriation, however, is destructive, and what's worse: it doesn't really get rid of the desire. Think of eating: in eating food, you destroy the food itself, and after a few hours (in my case), you're hungry again! This destructive appropriation is a problem when humans encounter each other. Now, two desiring creatures stand opposite each other, both wanting to appropriate the world, which includes the other human, but also the limited resources on the world. This, according to Hegel, results in a struggle for life and death. Appropriation is a zero-sum game here; if one person appropriates something, the other person can't. Eventually one person will admit defeat, and in fear of death, will submit to the other. The other now becomes the master, and makes his fellow human work for him; he becomes the slave. In a way, the master has appropriated the slave. Yet there's a poetic justice to this whole thing. Because the slave will actually find his true self in the process of labouring. You see, labouring means postponing the gratification of desires, which stops that loop of destructive desire. And instead of gratifying his desires, the slave 'externalizes' himself in his labour, which means that he shapes the world into his image. He's taming nature, and the tamed nature around him is an affirmation of his person-hood. Moreover, he will probably be working with other slaves, which provides yet another way of finding his 'self': through social interactions. The slaves acknowledge each other as equals, and together they find themselves through labour. The master, in the meantime, has gotten no further. The slave acknowledges him, sure, but not as an equal. The slave's acknowledgement rings false, because it's made in an unequal and forceful situation. This means that the masters will disappear over time to become workers, thereby also externalizing themselves and affirming their own person-hood.

Phew, that was all Hegel. In my head that was much, much shorter. Anyways, on to Levinas:

Levinas thinks that Hegel is falling for the same mistake that most of western philosophy falls prey to: thinking about everything from the ego. He called this thinking 'egology'. Levinas thought that it's impossible to solve the problem of the self and the other from the point of view of the ego. Instead, he thought, we should start from the other. More specifically, the encounter with the other. In this encounter, there is one essential thing to recognize: the other is asking me for acknowledgement. This appeal by the other is not forceful. In fact, as we've seen with Hegel, the other cannot possibly force me to acknowledge her, because the acknowledgement will not be true. No, the appeal by the other is powerless, and therefore life-changing. Because this puts me in a position of responsibility. My reaction to his powerless appeal is a defining moment for my own self. My reaction constitutes my self. Do I acknowledge her as a person? Can I live with the fact that she is fundamentally outside of my reach, that I cannot 'domesticate' her? Can I respect her autonomy, her own thoughts and feelings and goals? And can I do all of this without losing my own sense of self? This crucial encounter, not the ego, should be the starting point of thinking about this very difficult problem, thought Levinas.

And all of this, finally, leads to mutual recognition, the holy grail of social philosophy. 

Honestly, I think this is a fantastic idea. Of course, Hegel did do a lot of the preparation work here, even though Levinas thoroughly re-worked his position. But I think the power of both of them is how recognizable it really is (if you're reading this and you're thinking "what the flying F are you talking about?", it's all my fault, not the philosophers'). Levinas never really tried to build a system of ethics; his goal wasn't to tell people what's right and what's wrong. Rather, he constructed a so-called phenomenology of ethics: a description of how it feels to act ethically, or unethically. How it feels to recognize someone as a person, and how it feels to withhold that recognition.

If you find all of this terribly boring, you might not want to go into philosophy. Or read a better source first, I'm not exactly reputable.


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