Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Leszek Kolakowski on Edmund Husserl's Encounters With Kant and Hegel.

Leszek Kolakowski, "Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie," in Irving Howe, ed., 1984 Revisited: Totalitarianism in Our Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 122.
Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997), pp. 44-55, pp. 255-260.
Leszek Kolakowski, Husserl and the Search for Certitude (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).

The Polish-born philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is the rarest creature in academia, a philosopher with a sharp sense of humor. He is witty and clear in his writings, a rare combination in recent Continental thought. There is a fascination in his work with ultimate issues of good and evil, also moral seriousness. Yet he is never pedantic or pompous.

Kolakowski is a recent recipient of philosophy's equivalent of the Nobel prize, the John W. Kluge prize -- which includes "a nice chunk of change" -- as we say in New York. I think the cash prize is now over a million dollars. Who says philosophy does not pay? Kolakowski is doing just fine.

Kolakowski began his academic career as a Marxist and is now a sort of Phenomenologist-Christian. Very few people remain Marxists after winning more than a million dollars. Kolakowski's doubts about Marxism were expressed while he was living in a Marxist society, however, and when he was far from wealthy. It took courage for him to speak freely when he did. Kolakowski is a true philosopher with the courage of his convictions and with the integrity to have some convictions, even when convictions are inconvenient. These are rare qualities today.

I picked up Kolakowski's book on Husserl and could not put it down. I think his essay on Husserl's phenomenology can be linked to his interest in Kant's ethics ("Why we need Kant today"), then to his ultimate religious or metaphysical concerns. These are my interests too. I have also read his book on Bergson.

Kolakowski sees Husserl's project as a quest for certainty in order to refute skeptics and nihilists, but also as an effort to build a bridge to others, thus escaping scientism and all forms of ideological naturalism or materialism. Paul Ricoeur calls this move from self to other, the search for an "Ogival crossing."

Kolakowski concludes that Husserl's project ultimately founders, since certainty is unattainable by humans. Yet that Husserl's project must always be renewed. This is because it is the only way to defend the human concern with truth. Without truth, ethics collapses and we are on our way to the concentration camps, run by self-proclaimed "scientists," who are actually only adherents of a dehumanizing form of popular scientism.

Skepticism and relativism can be overcome [for Husserl] only if we discover the source of ... absolute certitude. This certitude can be gained where we do not need to worry about the bridge from perceptions to things, where there is an absolute immediacy, where the act of cognition and its content are not mediated in any way (even if their distinction remains valid), where we simply cannot ask how we know that our acts reach the content as it really is -- where the content is absolutely transparent to the subject and is immanent. ... Ego and object together have no other, which encompasses them both than transcendental consciousness.

Two issues arise at this point: 1) The pragmatist objection says that we can forget about certainty and foundations and just muddle along. Richard Rorty might offer such a response. The problem is that we are then without intellectual resources when we find ourselves muddling along to a Gulag. 2) The mystical objection says that we cannot reach other persons anyway, since truth is ultimately "incommunicable," so that we must retreat from the world, if we wish to save our souls.

I have never been persuaded by either of these objections, since "muddling along" only gets you muddled; and the only way to save one's soul, in my judgment, is by a concern with the good of the Other, by reaching out to others, lovingly, which (I believe) is the truth in Christianity. This was the lesson of Kolakowski's fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II. "The answer," John Paul said with a lovely smile to a capacity crowd at Shea Stadium, "is love." Kolakowski says that Husserl believes ...

... that solipsism can be overcome but that this can be done only within transcendental idealism. The certitude he believed to have discovered was intended to be universally valid -- valid for any rational being and accessible to everybody.

The subjective stance and transcendental move -- Kant is invoked here -- leads to a space shared with other subjects, "as knowers," never to a perception of others as only material bodies in empirical space, things to be moved around from the outside, like chess pieces. As a transcendental ego, my intentionality allows me to go beyond my own existence to others, through my awareness of perceptions or sense faculties and cognitions, like mine, "in" others. Notice the ubiquity of the problem of locality in the metaphysics of mind, even as we seek to escape locality.

The immediacy of knowledge in Husserl's transcendental reduction may indeed be incommunicable -- except that it is shared -- to the extent that others are also transcendental subjects. We always stand on common ground in the act of knowing. Christians and other religious persons say the common ground is simply love.

At this point, Husserl's work may be associated with Kant's discussion of the "transcendental unity of apperception," but also with Hegel's dialectics, in terms of the ultimate resolution of contradictions in Spirit's "self-discovery," or compared to F.H. Bradley's "Absolute."

Thus, I see the body of another person as such, not as a symptom of another person. Still, the other person has the status of alter ego only as it is constituted within my transcendental field. The transcendental intersubjectivity of separated monads is formed in me, but as a community that is constituted in every other monad as well. My ego can know the world only in community with other egos, and only one monadologic community is possible ... Transcendental intersubjectivity, being the absolute foundation, carries the world -- and absolutely founded knowledge is based on universal knowledge.

This leads to a powerful insight derived from Husserl: "Alter ego cannot be anything else but a concretion of my consciousness." I am that other in the act of transcendental reduction since the realm of knowing is necessarily shared, and all of us stand within it. Kolakowski's philosophy can be brought together with John Paul's Christian teaching in the conclusion that, ultimate knowing is love. I urge readers to search for a summary of John Mctaggart Ellis's theory of love, since his books are mostly out of print.

When I seek inside myself for the foundations of all knowledge, I find what is universal. I discover how I think, in American terms, only to realize that it is how others must think, even if they disagree with me. In finding my subjectivity, I also find what I share with others, their subjectivity. Hence, subject becomes object, fact and value are merged, and what is most singular becomes universal. From any number of directions, we are brought to this insight of unity, again and again. Think of Richard Le Galliene's "Parable of the Magnet."

I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's mission, as described in a documentary on PBS that I saw yesterday. It was impossible for Bonhoeffer to walk away from others who were trapped within Hitler's evil society. Choosing to share in the plight of the oppressed -- if Hitler's evil could not be halted -- was the only way Bonhoefer could live with himself, after such a revelation or insight.

A great concern of evil or totalitarianism in our times is to deny persons access to this communal space through mind-numbing distractions, through an increasingly prevalent ideology of materialism and scientism, ethical relativism or nihilism. Most especially, by denying persons access to humanity's deepest cultural memories, closing off that universal space of aesthetic or philosophical "knowing," that provides the only realization of humanity in community. (See "Say Goodbye to Unwanted Memories.")

Totalitarianism seeks to destroy the possibility of true community by offering a false one, either in hatred or through consumption of flashy objects and material waste. If it is true that persons always seek an object of worship, and if the choice is between a flashy car, gold watch, plasma t.v. set or Christ, then I choose Christ as symbolic of love -- other symbols (Star of David, compassionate Buddha) may serve equally well for persons in different religious traditions -- I say this knowing that this choice of love will mean embracing pain. My universal symbol at this point is the crucifix.

If your subjectivity is taken away and replaced with Alpo dog food commercials, or any of the numerous fundamentalisms that substitute for thought (which is not true religion), then your ability to connect with other people, so as to be fully human, is denied. America is not and should not be about money or weapons, as those who fail to understand the nation would have you believe. The greatest wealth of the United States is the Constitution and the tradition of reflection and interpretation of that document, which is our true community, symbolized by magnificent buildings, the flag or a judge's black robes. It is that tradition which we must not lose, which I believe to be endangered right now.

Consciousness IS memory, as Bergson would have put it. Creatures whose memory is effectively manipulated, programmed, and controlled from outside are no longer persons in any recognizable sense and therefore no longer human.

This is what totalitarian regimes keep unceasingly trying to achieve. People whose memory -- personal or collective -- has been nationalized, become state-owned and perfectly malleable, totally controllable, are entirely at the mercy of their rulers; they have been deprived of their identity; they are helpless and incapable of questioning anything they are told to believe. [A torturer once said: "Most people want to be told what to believe."] They will never revolt, never think, never create. They have been transformed into dead objects. They may even, conceivably, be happy and love Big Brother, which is Winston Smith's supreme performance.

When persons are emptied of subjectivity in this way, they can be "educated to hate," as Kolakowski says elsewhere. It is then possible to reduce the world to a cartoon, in which there are evil Americans oppressing everyone and "good" true believers, whose task it is to kill themselves and as many others as possible -- preferably Americans -- by flying an airliner into a crowded office building.

Indiscriminate murder by terrorists is a way of demonstrating that ordinary people in those buildings -- the victims -- are evil only because they are Americans or Israelis, for example, so that they deserve to die. Their crime (as Americans or Israelis) is merely to be, which is exactly the crime committed by Jews in Nazi Germany. They existed. That was enough. One's very identity, as an American, is a category of guilt (according to terrorists), who are determined to strike out at the United States by injuring or killing ordinary people. This indiscriminate killing is how terrorists seek to prove their "moral superiority" to the United States. The ethical absurdity and insanity of such a project needs no comment.

Americans are almost expected to apologize for being Americans. The idea of collective guilt is rejected -- as it should be -- for everyone else. Germans are not held responsible for their grandparents' actions, they should not be. However, all Americans are evil, in world opinion, because the American government does things that are criticized, or as a result of the tortures at Abu Ghraib, which are (so far) attributable only to a small group of individuals. Most puzzling of all, is the obnoxious attitude among a handful of American political extremists, who seem to relish a weird self-loathing and hatred of America.

It is difficult for people to grasp this point, particularly those who are highly critical of the U.S. government at the moment, something which they have every right to be. I ask them to remember this: There are people who wish to kill you for no other reason other than the fact that you are an American.

There is no need to consider the humanity of those who are to be destroyed or to be troubled about destroying them, if you are a terrorist. They are Americans, Israelis or British citizens. No more is needed. For Nazis, a Jew by virtue of being a Jew, deserved destruction. A torturer has no need to consider the feelings of his or her victim. The victim is an object to be manipulated, conditioned, or destroyed "for his own good." Astonishingly, persons can be made to accept, through bad ideas and beliefs, that the best thing for them to do is to kill themselves and others.

People who are interested in ethics, but who are skeptical about the existence of ethical truth, will explain that such a terrorist act is only objectionable or evil, as I was once told, from "our" perspective. There is no truth to the matter. It is all relative. It is all about power. The victims are only bodies, brains that think, not minds or suffering souls. There are no souls. I disagree.

I am unfashionable enough to believe that those 9/11 victims were indeed subjects with minds, reflecting in their final moments on those they loved and aware of their imminent demise, burdened with guilt and pain at the loss of loved-ones, whose needs were uppermost in the minds of many doomed passengers, even in the face of death. I believe that, in the midst of being destroyed, the victims on 9/11 were the moral superiors of those who took their lives. A victim is always morally preferable to his or her victimizer.

On the basis of cell phone records and messages left on telephone answering machines, persons in that situation -- sitting in a plane that was about to crash and destroy them -- wished to say only "I love you." They called spouses, children, parents and friends to say, "I am thinking of you now."

If I were facing death, then I would wish to say to those I love, to one woman in particular -- and you know who you are -- "I love you." There is no sacrifice or suffering that diminishes the value of the experience of love. No pain is unredeemed by it. All that is best in what I am or have done is only, thank goodness, this love that I feel for a few others in this world. It is a small gift of what I am and have, like a kind of carving, that I present to my loved-ones.

So an ordinary human being's most honest thought in those final seconds (and all of us must understand that we are on that plane and these are our final seconds), is to dry the tears of another person, to make her laugh or to bring a smile to a child, perhaps by telling her a story. (See the film It's a Beautiful Life.)

What we must not do, in fighting evil -- as we are spit upon and insulted or tortured, as our works are destroyed before our eyes, as we are denied human recognition -- is to become what the torturers are. For this reason, I am passionate in my opposition to torture, by anyone, claiming to act on behalf of the U.S. government. Kolakowski explains why, however angry we are at injustice, we must never hate:

This, then, is the secret weapon of totalitarianism: to poison the entire mental fabric of human beings with hatred, and thus to rob them of their dignity. As a result of my destructive rage, I am destroyed myself; in my self-complacency, in my innocence, my dignity is lost; my personal cohesion as well as communication and solidarity with others are lost. Hating includes nothing like solidarity; haters do not become friends because they share a detested enemy. Except for moments of direct fighting, they remain alien or hostile to each other too. Hardly any societies seethe with more clandestine and open hatred and envy than those that attempt to base their unity on hatred and promise to institutionalize brotherhood. And to say that hatred must be repaid with hatred is to say that in order to win in a just struggle, one must lose the reasons for the legitimacy of this struggle.

Co-conspirators in a criminal enterprise turn on one another at the first opportunity when it is convenient. They inform and act against one another in order to gain personal advantages, feeling nothing but hatred for victims and also for their fellow victimizers. Spiritually, they are dead already. For them, the bridge to the Other has been destroyed. Along with Kolakowski, I urge a renewed commitment to the moral foundations of our human world, recognition of our endagered subjectivity together with that of others. Only a transcendental subjectivity makes real objectivity possible. Read Kolakowski.

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