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.

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