International Solidarity in Apartheid South Africa
Keynote Address North American Levinas Society “Solidarity and Community” 29 July 2021
Need I remind anyone again / that armed struggle is an act of love? ~ Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile
In 1987, my husband Rob and I were recruited in Canada to move to Johannesburg to run a safehouse for underground leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle. We did so until 1990, when the operation was discovered by the regime and we fled back to Vancouver.
Those years raised profound and troubling questions for me. However, it was only in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas that I eventually found a way to properly frame and understand my experience of violence and armed resistance, of one’s infinite responsibility before the suffering of others, of solidarity and justice.
I wrote “The Housekeeper’s Tale” for a 2016 conference on the Politics of Armed Struggle in Southern Africa. More literary than scholarly, it sets out several lessons from the School of Underground. What does it mean to go to war? What does it mean to love your enemies? What does violence mean? What peace will come?
Last week, I had the pleasure of addressing a conference of family mediators in Cape Town on the topic of “Wisdom in mediation”.
First story. An ethics professor once said to an undergraduate philosophy class, “If you believe that a professor of ethics is an ethical person, you are making a category mistake.” The students recognised that this was true. At the same time, at least one of them thought, “Yes, but you ought to be.”
Annals of philosophical counselling/practice with others
“But it doesn’t work like that!” I say this in response to some proposed scheme or strategy of yours. I mean that, in terms of what you want to achieve, what you are doing seems either futile or malicious because you have a mistaken view about what’s going on. (I could be wrong, of course. We can talk about that.)
The self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of these people. Karl Marx
ABSTRACT: If a time of crisis calls for a new mode of thinking, philosophical practice offers the means to answer that call. Contemporary philosophical practice revitalises the ancient Greek understanding of philosophy as a way of life that cultivates personal transformation and new ways of seeing the world. This article describes the development of the author’s philosophical counselling practice as a practice of emancipation, in concert with the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Rancière. It considers the significance of personal engagement and companionship for the cultivation of practical wisdom, and suggests that the intransigence of our global social and economic crises ultimately indicates an incorrect view of human nature and an ossified or unbalanced relationship between practical and theoretical ways of knowing and wisdom.
“But if they’re interested in being able to work out their life, with someone who is going to keep them company, keep them safe, and not do anything to them while they’re doing that, then they stay. And then we work.”
Ran Lahav interviewed me and several other participants at the recent 13th International Conference on Philosophical Practice in Belgrade, for the Philo-Practice Agora project. You can find my interview hereor on YouTube.
In 2010, Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy dead: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” But he had not kept up with Martin Heidegger, who already said this in 1964, in “The end of philosophy and the task of thinking”. Philosophy’s dissolution into science, Heidegger says, is a legitimate end. What was begun with questions of being and reality, physics and metaphysics, ends up here. Western philosophy has reached its destination.
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)?
2012 has been my tenth year as a “philosopher in private practice”. I’m a bit surprised to find that what began with a hunch and a leap of faith has developed in unanticipated directions, yet stayed true to its roots.
The hunch concerned philosophy as a way of life. First, that philosophical activity – to observe, wonder, discern, make meaning, and speak of everything – is intrinsically and fundamentally human. And that, as much as our actions are guided by our understanding, we’d do better if we were able to think better (with heart, mind and belly). Second, that philosophical counselling offers a meaningful alternative to mainstream psychotherapy. It is not reductionist. It does not pathologise. In philosophical counselling, a person is received in all their uniqueness and everything is open to question. For me, this is grounded in the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and the therapeutic lineage of RD Laing, where the other is to be recognised as a legitimate other, the one who commands my attentive care and non-aggressive regard.
It starts off very personally, very intimately. You’re going about your business and then – for some unknown reason – you can’t carry on. Maybe there’s a choice you don’t know how to make. Maybe you’ve reached a dead end or the limit of some chain you didn’t even know you wore. You are thrown back on yourself. It’s very close and uncomfortable, painful.
Simon Critchley (2007:1) writes that philosophy begins in “disappointment”: “the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed.” Philosophy begins the moment your intelligence reaches out from within this situation to clarify, to identify and understand, to find a way through. What’s happening?What is the meaning of this?