QA 40. Apr 2013. The ignorant emancipated philosopher

Last week I attended “Phenomenology and Its Futures”, the inaugural conference of the South African Centre for Phenomenology – and a splendid conference it was! I spoke on “Philosophy as a practice of emancipation”. Followers of this blog will know I’ve been beavering away at this for a while. The paper described my philosophical counselling practice as grounded in the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (in a nutshell: “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I more than the others.”) and directed towards emancipation (as in Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation). This was my conclusion…

I have found it increasingly useful and reliable to work from an expanded premise of equality, to suppose that we all come equipped with the same capacity for intelligence, sanity and goodness. This is not faith, idealism or ideology. It is a hypothesis, an opinion that can’t finally be proved either way. But, like Rancière, we can pay attention what happens when we start looking for the evidence to verify it.

To my own surprise, I find that my guests do know perfectly well and are perfectly capable. Just like me, they know what is good for them, and what is not. They know the truth when they hear it. They are capable of expressing themselves in words and works. And yet they are also mistaken, unbalanced, neurotic and dispirited. They suffer and they cause suffering. They need help. What is an ignorant, emancipated, Levinas-inspired philosopher to do? She can offer philosophy as a practice of emancipation.

Which means: to demonstrate to the other his own power to see, to judge and to act. To keep the other on track without knowing what that track is, by encouraging her to exercise her attention and will and by verifying what she comes up with.

It is also to thoroughly corroborate the other’s equality. Living in such entrenched systems of inequality as we do, “measuring up” becomes a matter of huge insecurity and inordinate pride and shame. There is so much at stake when we are judged to be mad or bad or stupid (or sane or good or smart). With an emancipated counsellor, one who no longer credits those categories, people can dare to show up as they are, in order to consider what is actually going on in their world and what holds them in bondage.

Much of the ground for fear and neurosis falls away when a person’s human dignity is simply not in question. Then the will naturally comes into play in a “thinking subject who is aware of himself through the action he exerts”, an emancipated subject who “might conceive of her human dignity, take the measure of her intellectual capacity and decide how to use it” (Rancière).

It is to respond to this fellow traveller with care and affection. We always come to ourselves through others, and the one who “comes to” in the responsive and non-aggressive regard of another can always find a way.

Finally, and from the beginning, it is to remember that ethics and emancipation are synonymous terms, but only because “the equality of all is ultimately borne by my inequality” (Levinas) before this one who commands me to my responsibility.

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