Some observations concerning diversity (Part I)

(1) This morning, I took my daughter Hannah to a nice playground in Berlin. She is just over two years old and particularly enjoys climbing. As we approached the climbing frame, one of the boys on top shouted that they wouldn’t allow girls on the climbing frame. The girls around him smiled …

(2) Two years ago, I joined an initiative designed to keep a far-right right party (AFD) out of parliament. The initiative was founded by a group of social entrepreneurs, and the first workshop was attended mainly by social entrepreneurs, most of them in their late twenties or early thirties. At the beginning, we were asked whether we actually knew anyone who would vote for the AFD. This was affirmed only by one man, somewhat older than most. He told us that he knew a few people in the village he came from. Later in the day, we had to form smaller groups. Guess who had difficulty finding a group …

(3) Quite a number of years ago, I was on a hiring committee while still being a postdoc. For the first round of going through the applications, we were advised to focus on CVs. Discussing the candidates, I listened to a number of meritocratic arguments: they mostly, but not solely, concerned numbers of “good” publications (“good” means in prestigious venues, in case you were wondering). Then someone pointed out that we should perhaps take more time for reading. Someone else pointed out that we should scan cover letters for reasons of interruptions in the CVs, such as times for child care work. Guess what didn’t carry any weight when we drew up the list …

I could go on. These are minor observations; anyone could have made them. Nevertheless, in all their banality, these stories of exclusion form the daily fabric of our failures. But where exactly can we locate the failures? The people involved in these situations were not bad people, not at all: lively children on a playground, ambitious young entrepreneurs fighting for a good cause, a hiring committee focussed on selecting the best candidate. The events didn’t result in catastrophes: Hannah climbed up anyway, the initiative went nowhere, someone certainly deserving got a job. – The point is that these situations are so ordinary that hardly anyone would consider or be willing to cause much of a fuss. Or so it seems. The harm might be done: The next little girl might be discouraged from going to the playground; the next lonely man from the village will perhaps find better company among the far-right; a number of candidates, who would have been equally deserving even by the committee’s standards, were not even considered. Even if no one tells them, the stories of exclusion go on. But what can we do?

The first thing is that in all these situations, there was a possibility of making a difference. Contrary to a widespread belief, we are not powerless minions. The fact that we cannot save the whole world doesn’t mean that we cannot change our ways here and there, or listen for a change. But there are two things that make me doubtful:

  • Despite all the fashionable talk of diversity, such stories suggest that many of us don’t really want diversity. What these situations reveal is that the exclusive attitudes seem to be very deeply ingrained.
  • Even if such attitudes can be overcome, I sense a sort of paranoia amongst many people in positions of public leadership. If you look at more and less well-known people in politics, such as presidents, prime ministers, chancellors etc., many of them display a fear of everything that is different. But while it’s easy to call them names for it, we shouldn’t forget that they get elected by majorities.

It’s complicated. The exclusions we see are not ad hoc, but fostered by long-standing structures. There’s much of that I dislike or even hate, while I continue to be a beneficiary in some way or another. That is probably true of many of us. Thus, the charge of hypocrisy always seems justified. But if that’s true, the charge of hypocrisy shouldn’t cause too much worry. The worry of being called a hypocrite might be paralysing. What shouldn’t be forgotten is that hypocrisy is structural, too. It can’t be amended by targeting individuals. Everyone who’s is trying to interfere and make a difference, can be called a hypocrite.

Why is the Wall still dividing us? The persistence of the intellectual cold war

Discussing some ideas relating to my piece on the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, I was struck by the following question: “How is it possible that the Wall separating East and West is still so successful?” It’s true! While I thought that 1989 marks a historical turning point that initiated an integrative process, this turns out to be a cherished illusion of mine. As my interlocutor pointed out, the Wall is still successful. It continues to keep the people apart. OK, I wanted to object, there is still an economic divide and that takes time of course. “No”, she retorted, “it’s not only economic, it’s also intellectual.” So there the point was being made again: the cold war attitude continues, also intellectually. What does that mean?

To keep things simple, I’ll focus on Germany. Let’s begin with my illusion. Having grown up in a small town near Düsseldorf, the Wall seemed far away. Apart from very few visits of relatives, I had no contacts and not much of an idea of the former GDR. Although I was quite moved by the fall of the Wall, it didn’t seem to affect my life directly. That changed when I moved to Budapest for one and a half years in 1994. I realised that my education had failed me. I knew hardly anything about the history of Hungary or Eastern Europe, not even about East Germany. Nevertheless, I was convinced that now there would be a process of integration under way. Europe would grow together. Slowly but surely; it had to. Did it?

East Germany is still a thing. That is strange in itself. It shouldn’t be. After all, the Wall has now been down slightly longer than it was up. It was built in 1961 and came down in 1989. Since then, 30 years have passed. But it must be liberating to think that neo-nazism, for instance, is not a problem in Germany but East Germany. The East is a perfect scapegoat in several domains. The narrative is dominated by the economic imbalance and the idea that people from the (former) East lack democratic education. The upshot of the narrative seems to be this: East Germans have a different mentality. The former generations were communists or dominated by communists. Their offspring are neo-nazis or indoctrinated by neo-nazis. You get the idea…

Of course, many biographies have been upset one way or another. Of course, the situation is complex, but after looking at some figures the crucial problems don’t strike me as owing primarily to a difference in mentality. This doesn’t mean that there is no problem of neo-nazism. But how did things start moving in the East? The former GDR seems to have been “colonised”, as some put it already by 1997. What were the effects in academia? Today, I read an article with the headline that “men lead three quarters of German universities”. Yes, I can imagine that. What the headline didn’t state but what I found among the figures is that “no rector or president” originates from East Germany. OK, not every academic biography culminates in leading a university. But still: reading this, I felt reminded of stories about “liquidation”. So I looked up some more figures: “By 1994, over 13,000 positions at universities in east Germany had been liquidated, and 20,000 more people (including 5,000 professors) had lost their jobs. Many teachers and academics were fired ‘despite the fact that they had proven professional qualifications.’” It’s hard to believe that these measures did anything to facilitate integration, let alone intellectual integration.

At this point, it doesn’t look like the divisive East-West narratives will loose their grip anytime soon. But why not? I guess that the colonialisation as part of the unification process will continue to be justified. It needs to be justified to cover up the crimes committed. But how can such things be justified? How can you justify to have sacked a huge amount of people and taken over quite some of their positions? Again, it will continue to be blamed on the mentality: If they complain about the past, you can blame it on their mentality. The lack of democratic education left them unfit for such responsibilities and now they are being nostalgic.* If they complain about their situation now, you can still blame it on the mentality. Which mentality? Well, they are still lacking democratic education and cannot understand that the state doesn’t have the duty to coddle them in their unemployment. Whichever way you see it, they just turn out to be incapable. So taking over responsibilities was and is justified.

It goes without saying that the forgoing is verging on a black and white picture. The idea is not to explain such complex political developments in a blog post. The idea is to gesture towards an answer to the question of why the Wall continues to be so efficient, even though it came down 30 years ago. What is the ideology that is so persistent? I truly don’t know. Perhaps the ideology of those erecting the Wall is still or again at work. Or the very idea of a Wall, of a divide, is more convenient than we want to believe. For it can serve in justifying differences and injustices even after tearing it down. In any case, the reference to “mentality” strikes me as a highly problematic form of moral exclusion.

So perhaps the Wall continues to serves as a justificational loop. How does it work? The people blaming each other will most likely not assume that they are just pointing to a supposed mentality in order to justify an injustice. They will take their beliefs (about communism, nazism, and capitalism etc.) to be true of those accused. But they can likely do so as long as the justificational mechanism of the Wall keeps them apart.

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* Thinking about (n)ostalgia, there is also the more sinister explanation that the cherished memories do not simply reach back to the time after 1961, but further back to the times after 1933. In other words, if you want to explain the far-right movement by reference to mentality, you might look to the mentality that spans across East and West Germany, nourished well before the Wall was erected.

History of contemporary thought and the silence in Europe. A response to Eric Schliesser

What should go into a history of contemporary ideas or philosophy? Of course this is a question that is tricky to answer for all sorts of reasons. What makes it difficult is that we then tend to think of mostly canonical figures and begin to wonder which of those will be remembered in hundred years. I think we can put an interesting spin on that question if we approach it in a more historical way. How did our current thoughts evolve? Who are the people who really influenced us? There will not only be people whose work we happen to read, but those who directly interact and interacted with us. Our teachers, fellow students, friends and opponents. You might not think of them as geniuses, but we should drop that category anyway. These are likely people who really made a difference to the way you think. So let’s scratch our heads a bit and wonder who gave us ideas directly. In any case, they should figure in the history of our thought.

You might object that these figures would not necessarily be recognised as influential at large. However, I doubt that this is a good criterion: our history is not chiefly determined by who we take to be generally influential, but more often than not by those people we speak to. If not, why would historians bother to figure out real interlocutors in letters etc.? This means that encounters between a few people might make quite a difference. You might also object that a history of contemporary philosophy is not about you. But why not? Why should it not include you at least? What I like about this approach is that it also serves as a helpful corrective to outworn assumptions about who is canonical. Because even if certain figures are canonical, our interpretations of canonical figures are strongly shaped by our direct interlocutors.

Thinking about my own ideas in this way is a humbling experience. There is quite a number of people inside and outside my department to whom I owe many of my ideas. But this approach also reveals some of the conditions, political and other, that allow for such influence. One such condition I am painfully reminded of when observing the current political changes in Europe. No, I do not mean Brexit! Although I find these developments very sad and threatening indeed, most of the work done by friends and colleagues in Britain will reach me independently of those developments.

But Central and Eastern Europe is a different case. As it happens, the work that affected my own research most in the recent years is on the history of natural philosophy. It’s more than a guess when I say that I am not alone in this. Amongst other things, it made me rethink our current and historical ideas of the self. Given that quite a number of researchers who work on this happen to come from Central and Eastern Europe, much of this work probably wouldn’t have reached me, had it not been for the revolutions in 1989. This means that my thinking (and most likely that of others, too) would have been entirely different in many respects, had we not seen the Wall come down and communist regimes overthrown.

Why do I bring this up now? A brief exchange following up on an interesting post by Eric Schliesser* made it obvious that many Western Europeans, by and large, seem to assume that the revolutions from 1989 have had no influence on their thought. As he puts it, “the intellectual class kind of was conceptually unaffected” by them. And indeed, if we look at the way we cite and acknowledge the work of others, we regularly forget to credit many, if not most, of our interlocutors from less prestigious places. In this sense, people in what we call the Western world might be inclined to think that 1989 was not of significance in the history of thought. I think this is a mistake. A mistake arising from the canonical way of thinking about the work that influences us. Instead of acknowledging the work of individuals who actually influence us, we continue citing the next big shot whom we take to be influential in general. By excluding the direct impact of our actual interlocutors, we make real impact largely invisible. Intellectually, the West behaves as if it were still living in the Cold War times. But the fact that we continue to ignore or shun the larger patterns of real impact since 1989 does not entail that it is not there. Any claim to the contrary would, without further evidence at least, amount to an argument from ignorance.

The point I want to make is simple: we depend on other people for our thought. We need to acknowledge this if we want to understand how we come to think what we think. The fact that universities are currently set up like businesses might make us believe that the work people do can (almost) equally be done by other people. But this is simply not true. People influencing our thought are always particular people; they cannot be exchanged salva veritate. If we care about what we think, we should naturally care about the origin of our thought. We owe it to particular people, even if we sometimes forget the particular conversations in which our ideas were triggered, encouraged or refuted.

Now if this is correct, then it’s all the more surprising that we let go of the conditions enabling much of this exchange in Europe so easily. How is it possible, for instance, that most European academics remain quiet in the face of recent developments in Hungary? We witnessed how the CEU was being forced to move to Vienna in an unprecedented manner, and now the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is targeted.**

While the international press reports every single remark (no matter how silly) that is made in relation to Brexit, and while I see many academics comment on this or that aspect (often for very good reasons), the silence after the recent events in Hungary is almost deafening. Of course, Hungary is not alone in this. Academic freedom is now targeted in many places inside and outside Europe. If we continue to let it happen, the academic community in Europe and elsewhere will disintegrate very soon. But of course we can continue to praise our entrepreneurial spirit in the business park of academia and believe that people’s work is interchangeable salva veritate; we can continue talking to ourselves, listen diligently to our echoes, and make soliloquies a great genre again.

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* See also this earlier and very pertinent post by Eric Schliesser.

** See also this article. And this call for support.

Should contemporary philosophers read Ockham? Or: what did history ever do for us?

If you are a historian of philosophy, you’ve probably encountered the question whether the stuff you’re working on is of any interest today. It’s the kind of question that awakens all the different souls in your breast at once. Your more enthusiastic self might think, “yes, totally”, while your methodological soul might shout, “anachronism ahead!” And your humbler part might think, “I don’t even understand it myself.” When exposed to this question, I often want to say many things at once, and out comes something garbled. But now I’d like to suggest that there is only one true reply to the main question in the title: “No, that’s the wrong kind of question to ask!” – But of course that’s not all there is to it. So please hear me out.

I’m currently revisiting an intriguing medieval debate between William of Ockham, Gregory of Rimini and Pierre D’Ailly on the question of how thought is structured. While I find the issue quite exciting in itself, it’s particularly interesting to see how they treat their different sources, Aristotle and Augustine. While they clearly all know the texts invoked they emphasise different aspects. Thinking about thought, William harkens back to Aristotle and clearly thinks that it’s structure that matters. By contrast, Gregory goes along with Augustine and emphasises thought as a mental action. – For these authors it was clear that their sources were highly relevant, both as inspiration and authorities. At the same time, they had no qualms to appropriate them for their uses. – In some respects we make similar moves today, when we call ourselves Humeans or Aristotelians. But since we also have professional historians of philosophy and look back at traditions of critical scholarship, both historians and philosophers are more cautious when it comes to the question of whether some particular author would be “relevant today”.

In view of this question, historians are trained to exhibit all kinds of (often dismissive) gut reactions, while philosophers working in contemporary themes don’t really have time for our long-winded answers. And so we started talking past each other, happily ever after. That’s not a good thing. So here is why I think the question of whether any particular author could inform or improve current debates is wrongheaded.

Of course everyone is free to read Ockham. But I wouldn’t recommend doing it, if you’re hoping to enrich the current debates. Yes, Ockham says a lot of interesting things. But you’d need a long time to translate them into contemporary terminology and still more time to find an argument that will look like a right-out improvement of a current argument.* – My point is not that Ockham is not an interesting philosopher. My point is that Ockham (and many other past philosophers) doesn’t straightforwardly speak to any current concerns.

However … Yes, of course there was going to be a “however”! However, while we don’t need to ask whether any particular author is relevant today, we should be asking a different question. That Ockham doesn’t speak to current concerns doesn’t mean that historians of philosophy (studying Ockham or others) have nothing to say about current concerns. So it’s not that Ockham should be twisted to speak to current concerns; rather historians and philosophers should be talking to each other! So the right question to ask is: how can historians speak to current issues?

The point is that historians study, amongst other things, debates on philosophical issues. “You say tomahto, I say tomato”, that sort of thing. Debates happen now as they happened then. What I find crucial is that studying debates reveals features that can be informative for understanding current debates. There are certain conditions that have to be met for a debate to arise. We’re not just moving through the space of reasons. Debates occur or decline because of various factors. What we find conceptually salient can be driven by available texts, literary preferences, other things we hold dear, theological concerns, technological inventions (just think of various computer models), arising political pressures (you know what I mean), linguistic factors (what would happen if most philosophers were to write in Dutch?), and a lot of other factors, be they environmental, sociological, or what have you. Although we like to think that the pursuit of truth is central, it’s by far not the only reason why debates arise and certain concepts are coined and stick around, while others are forgotten. Although contingent, such factors are recurrent. And this is something that affects our understanding of current as well as past debates. The historian can approach current debates as a historian in the same way that she can approach past debates. And this is, I submit, where historians can truly speak to current concerns.

Coming back to the debate I mentioned earlier, there is another issue (besides the treatment of sources) that I find striking. In their emphasis of Augustine, Gregory and Peter show a transition from a representational to an action model of thought. Why does this transition occur? Why do they find it important to emphasise action over representation against William? – Many reasons are possible. I won’t go into them now. But this might be an interesting point of comparison to the current debates over enactivism versus certain sorts of representationalism. Why do we have that debate now? Is it owing to influences like Ryle and Gibson? Certainly, they are points of (sometimes implicit) reference. Are there other factors? Again, while I think that these are intriguing philosophical developments, our understanding of such transitions and debates remains impoverished, if we don’t look for other factors. Studying past transitions can reveal recurrent factors in contemporary debates. One factor might be that construing thoughts as acts rather than mere representations discloses their normative dimensions. Acts are something for which we might be held responsible. There is a lot more to be said. For now suffice it to say that it is in comparing debates and uncovering their conditions, that historians of philosophy qua historians can really contribute.

At the same time, historians might also benefit from paying more attention to current concerns. Not only to stay up to date, but also to sharpen their understanding of historical debates.** As we all know, historical facts don’t just pop up. They have to be seen. But this seeing is of course a kind of seeing as. Thus, if we don’t just want to repeat the historiographical paradigms of, say, the eighties, it certainly doesn’t hurt if our seeing is trained in conversation with current philosophers.

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* That said, this is of course an open question. So I’m happy to be shown a counterexample.

** More on the exchange between philosophers and historians of philosophy can be found in my inaugural lecture.