QA 38. January 2013. Rocking the foundations of thought

Education systems that render people stupid, mental health treatment that renders people mad, religions that render people wicked, economies that render people poor, political systems that render people powerless. How is it that our social systems break down (render) precisely what they are meant to serve (render to)?

Their common situation: inequality and arrogance in power. Power is arrogant when it does not – will not – bend its knee to goodness (which is its origin), and thereby renders itself illegitimate. Inequality is then created in order to re-legitimate power: might becomes right. It is a lie. A stupid, mad, wicked, impoverished and ultimately powerless lie.


 When our projects create more problems than they solve, when every field of endeavour is furrowed with corruption, we need to think deeply about what brought us here. We’re called to reconsider our understanding of the world and our place in it. Philosophy is one name for this vocation. Derived from the Greek words for love (philo) and wisdom (sophia), philosophy is the “love of wisdom” – or perhaps, in the words of Emmanuel Levinas, “the wisdom of love at the service of love”.

Philosophy was such a vocation for Levinas. Born in 1906 to a Jewish Lithuanian family, he went on to study philosophy in France and Germany. After the war – after his family was murdered, after five years incarcerated in a labour camp, after Christian friends helped his wife and baby daughter survive – he was provoked by one of the most anguished questions in philosophy’s history. How could centuries of Greco-Christian-European thinking lead to Auschwitz? His answer would indict philosophy’s fascination with ontology, its concentration on the nature of being and beings. Europe’s thought had not attended enough to what is particular and sacred in human being: that we are responsible for others, that the life of another can be more important to us than our own. For Levinas, the question is not “to be or not to be” but “is it righteous to be?” In his work, ethics replaces ontology as philosophy’s first concern.

Jacques Rancière is another philosopher to interrogate fundamental beliefs. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, he shows how we are “stultified” by believing in an innate inequality of intelligence. In education, this belief underlies streaming programmes that allow the “cream” to rise (and the dullards to sink), and even the progressive pedagogies that seek to overcome inequality through education. For Rancière, emancipation requires us to assume equality from the start, lest it be continually and infinitely deferred.

How much of our reasoning relies on these two beliefs: that people are fundamentally self-interested and naturally unequal? More than you might guess. If we discovered, with Levinas and Rancière, that these beliefs were mistaken, it would change the way we think about everything. I’d say that’s worth investigating, even (especially) if it feels risky or ridiculous. It is in this investigation that philosophy returns to itself as the very practice of emancipation.

6 thoughts on “QA 38. January 2013. Rocking the foundations of thought”

  1. Bravo, Helen ! We need more thinkers like you! Have you read Jiddu Krishnamurti on education? Very interesting. Visited Rishi Valley School in India in December 2010 – an eye opener !

  2. Hi Helen! This is wonderful stuff, just how it needs to be formulated right now… may you be widely read. Can’t put it as well as you do but the first paragraph also makes me think of what inequality and corrupt power renders out of all kinds of personal relationships…

  3. “Their common situation: inequality and arrogance in power. Power is arrogant when it does not – will not – bend its knee to goodness (which is its origin), and thereby renders itself illegitimate. Inequality is then created in order to re-legitimate power: might becomes right”.

    In December I listened to a BBC podcast about women taking senior positions, and sent them the following comment. They did not take it up, but I feel it made a valid point that could also be relevant to what you wrote.

    “I listened to your recent podcast.

    One theme that emerged was the fact that women may take senior positions in government (or business) but it does not necessarily lead to a fundamental change in the way government or business works.

    I suggest that a clue to why this happens lies in the use, throughout your programme, of the phrase “putting women in positions of power”. The common assumption that a government post is a “position of power” fosters the culture where government becomes peopled with power seekers (the very people who should not be in government). Whether they are women or men makes less difference, so the old ways are re-established.

    Instead it should be recognised that any government or leadership position is also a position of service – and that surely is the only justification for being paid so well. So the necessary privileges given to leaders should not be seen as rewards for the powerful, but compensations for making a sacrifice for their country. Stepping down or being voted out of government is not necessarily a punishment for failure, it can be a reward for having served well.

    So I suggest that a move to appoint women to positions of service to a nation (or a business) would be a better way to foster a less macho governance culture.”

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