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Do our Geo-political Confusions derive from our Philosophical Confusion?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap] t is the task of pundits and political science experts to elucidate, explain and untie our geo-political conundrums and knots, so to speak. It has become a veritable academic cottage industry whose father arguably is none other than Niccolo’ Machiavelli. But to judge even by only what can be empirically observed, it seems that the greater the effort of elucidation, the greater the confusion. This is a puzzling paradox which is sure to keep academics of all stripes up at night and very busy for the foreseeable future.

I’d like to modestly propose that this strange paradox of geo-political confusion can perhaps best be explored by analyzing the underlying philosophical confusion, that is to say, a confusion at the level of ideas. For example, one of the most frequent, most brazen attacks on modern thought is the one carried on by assorted Straussian classicists and absolutists of many stripes and persuasions. Straussianism is a respectable conservative philosophy held by the Chicago University philosopher Leo Strauss, which attacks modern relativism, reductionism and positivism. It views “modernity” or modern philosophy as a sort of cancer on today’s body politics and resorts to the ancients for answers to modern political perplexities. As it could be expected it is vehemently opposed by the vast majority of liberal progressive philosophies in academia (indeed the predominant majority in academia) which at least attempt a synthesis between the ancients and the moderns even when the tensions between the two remain and the synthesis is not achieved.

The Straussians’ stratagem seems to function this way: show that modern and post-modern thought leads to relativism, then that relativism in turn leads to pluralism and multi-culturalism. Thereupon attack multiculturalism and pluralism as a cancer on the body politic and the very unity of NATO, the EU and Western Civilization in general, never mind that quite often these attacks are redolent of the xenophobia and rabid nationalism, even fascism of old. Now, if the reader initially finds all this rather confusing, it is because it is. Without an examination of the underlying philosophical confusions it will probably remain confused.

We have the famous case of some years ago of Strauss and Momigliano branding Isaiah Berlin a shameless relativist and stubbornly persisting in the charge even when Berlin defended himself and denied it in the New York Review of Books. In politics we have none other than the former PM of France Sarkozi and the present PM of Germany Merkel encouraging the demise of the multiculturalist experiment in the European Union. The two don’t exactly advocate a return to good old nationalism or fascism, they are far from being right-wingers, but the message come through loud and clear nonetheless: you need to conform and assimilate to European ethos and culture or your life will become quite uncomfortable in the EU. In effect, the issue of multiculturalism has been slowly transformed in one of clash of civilizations; a dangerous explosive issue if there ever was one.

Without going into the more complex political and social aspects of this issue, which I have discussed elsewhere, I’d like, more modestly, to show here that it is a logical and philosophical fallacy to equate pluralism with relativism; that in fact the arguments in that regard are a gross equivocation, a red herring meant to distract from the real agenda of those anti-multicultural right wing politicians (I am thinking here of Wilder, le Penn, Bossi and Grillo, etc. etc.) bend on bringing back good old nationalism, totalitarian regimes, fascism, even advocating secession from the countries in which they operate.

This exploration will focus mostly on the philosophy of hermeneutics of a current modern philosopher: Gianni Vattimo who was a European parliamentarian for a while and whom I had the good fortune of having as a teacher at Yale University in the late seventies in a course he taught there on Giambattista Vico. I distinctly remember some face to face conversations I had with Vattimo. It soon became apparent that he follows a philosophical line which goes directly from Vico to Nietzsche through Heidegger to Hans Georg Gadamar (as student of Heidegger like Strauss and an influential Vico scholar in his own right). In that genealogy Vattimo would be the philosophical great-grandson of Vico, the grandson of Nietzsche/Heidegger and the son of Gadamer. As was the case for his predecessors in the field of hermeneutics beginning with Vico, for Vattimo hermeneutics which etymologically means “interpretation” is much more than one branch of philosophy; it is the constitutive element of philosophy itself. It is well known in philosophical circles that hermeneutics acquired great importance in the 20th century, especially in the “turn to language” as advocated by Heidegger and pioneered by Vico in the 18th century via The New Science.

After this necessary preamble, we will begin with this crucial question: Is pluralism possible without relativism? Some clear definitions may be needed at the outset. What do we mean by pluralism? Essentially this: the idea that there are multiple avenues to truth, multiple forms of truth, and multiple diverse (and potentially radically different) cultural lifeworld expressions operative at the same time and this forms are historical as well as geographical situated in time and space. The Straussians of course debunk this as historicism unconcerned with universals, but then some of them become self-declared experts in Far Eastern cultures to better stand apart from the unwashed ignorant oi polloi. The whole operation begins to smell of elitism. They even go around speaking mandarin knowing full well that few can judge and assess their knowledge of the language. Oh my, are we confused.

What do we mean by relativism? Basically, the belief that all of these various expressions are in some sense “equally true” and/or the notion that even if there were one right final truth to the universe we humans would never be able to ascertain it. As Vico put it, man can only know with absolute certitude only what he himself has made (languages, institutions, history) and to whose origins he can return, not what God and only God has made: i.e., nature and the natural world. Even Plato, who is generally considered the grandfather of absolutists of all persuasions, after recounting the myth of the cave as an allegory of knowledge and truth, exclaims: “only God knows if this is true.”

Nevertheless those two views are conjoined so that relativism gets portrayed as a sub-set of pluralism. But is that really the case? Pluralism may indeed be hallmark of postmodernism but not so relativism. Pluralism does not necessarily need to hold that all views are equal, as relativism does. Relativism takes the existence of plurality and then makes a decision that we cannot know how to judge between these various expressions of life and says that they are all equal and not to be compared and not to be judged.

Paradoxically, the statement that all views are equal is an absolute position, and it undermines relativism. The statement that all views are relative and in relation to one another is, in fact, correct. The idea that all views are related to other views and that no view springs out of the ether of Mount Olympus or outside of time and space completely on its own does not mean all those views are equally valid. That is to say, post-postmodernism accepts the pluralism that is already there in the postmodern world and then seeks ways to integrate it. This approach is different than any attempt to reinforce a single narrative (i.e. the modern world as positivists tend to do) upon the various diverse forms of expression in existence.

Enter Gianni Vattimo. His work is built around what he calls “weak thought”. Weak thought refers to the station of thought and philosophy in the context of life after modernity–that is after the death of European colonialism, the 20th century’s horrors, the rise of globalization, and the end of the Cold War. The opinions, views, and commitments we hold must necessarily be “weakened” in this age which Vico would place in the third era of extreme rationality. Vattimo, as I remember is quite fond of quoting this famous saying of Nietzsche: There are no facts only interpretations and this itself is an interpretation.

Nietzsche called the coming dissolution of modernity (and he was a prophet in that respect), the “fabling of the world.” The postmodern world is a fable; or in Vattimo’s terms, weak thought, which is to say the kind of logic one sees in fables, myths and fairy tales, is now the “weak” reality of life. According to modern thought which begins with the Descartes and Enlightenment rationalism, life follows an objective system of progress and rationality. But for Nietzsche the modern world’s self-view was not fact but interpretation. Vattimo insists in keeping both halves of that Nietzschean aphorism in mind: 1. There are no facts only interpretations and 2. Number 1 is itself an interpretation. The first point undercuts the modern view of pure objectivity. The second point prevents the postmodern insight concerning interpretation to become its own “fact.”

Hermeneutics is nothing else but the study of meaning and interpretation. This was brought home to me in the Vico course I took under Vattimo at Yale University in the late seventies, as mentioned above. Later, after writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Vico I ended up writing a book titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Mellen Press, 1993). For Vattimo, what hermeneutics has revealed is a thoroughly pluralized world. He writes that we can no longer believe in a final objective all-encompassing absolute metaphysical view of the universe—that is to say, a universe that perfectly describes the way things actually are.

Lately I have been reviewing Heidegger’s thought which I had originally studied in college via a book with which a friend and colleague who is an expert on Heidegger has gifted me (The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger edited by Charles Guignon). What come through in that book is that Heidegger persuasively argued that the attempt by metaphysics to describe rationally all of life under a single heading (God, Being, Truth, etc.) has destroyed our ability to actually live in the world and that the manifestation of this trend in our day is science and the scientific approach (positivism). For Heidegger this tendency to describe, control, and frame existence under the term of metaphysics led to the “oblivion of Being” or the human inability to live graciously in the world. Instead of first living in the mystery of existence, we seek to control, describe, and explain life and end up dehumanizing ourselves. For Heidegger as indeed for the anti-Cartesian Vico earlier, the best way to relate is through a kind of poetic-like relationship to the world. We let it arise and speak to us in its mysterious language instead of trying to impose upon life our categories of thought, for Nature is a shy maiden and will not be violated and dominated and observed naked. The truth too may be a shy maiden not to be used as a weapon of sort. This is what Heidegger describes as the post-metaphysical world. This is redolent of Vico’s idea that rationality is composed of the rational but also, and just as importantly, of the poetical and to separate the two is to dehumanize oneself.

Vattimo too argues that this trajectory arises from the early foundations of Christianity, that Christianity eventually destroys an absolutist metaphysics. Atheism is another form of metaphysics for him. The post-metaphysical world, the post-modern world, the world that is an interpreted fable, is one in which there are a plurality of cultures, languages, and life-worlds enacted by various beings on the planet. No one of them can ever be final.

So the crucial question becomes: how do we deal with plurality without falling into the trap of relativism? Vattimo nowhere says that all views are equally valid and, like Berlin, he never declares himself a relativist. For Vattimo the ethical implications of “weak thought” is charity. Love is better than the rejection of love and therefore not all views are equal and we must love each other in our differences or perish.

It is not hard to see that for this version of a postmodern worldview which recommends the “weak power” of love as a guiding ethical construct of a plural world would find unacceptable any theory that denies or represses plurality denying charity and forgiveness. Some of these world views that Vattimo would find flawed include religious fundamentalism, scientific materialism, and last but not least cultural relativism. Vattimo is concerned with bringing views, languages, and peoples at the periphery into the middle of the discourse. Vattimo in effect has given an answer to the Straussian classical absolutists’ debunking modern thought. Pluralism can hold on to ethical values that have meaning, practice love and forgiveness across cultural differences, reject violence, intolerance and relativism. Paradoxically, “weak power” unsure of itself overpowers intransigent absolutism sure of itself.

What did Shakespeare say: Maturity is all. I suppose part of maturity at every level is the ability to live with ambiguity. The greater one’s ability to live with ambiguity, the more mature one is. Most absolutists seem to be unable to accomplish such a feat; they need absolute certainty and are too clever and elitists by half for their own good. Vattimo’s weak thought on the other hand, as a form of pluralism seems to be quite mature, the way cultural relativism can never be. Cultural relativism recoils from the ambiguity of pluralism, of post-metaphysics and historicism taking refuge in the easy position of everything being equally right and so no view can ever be judged.

Indeed one can do worse than becoming a pluralist and a multiculturalist; one can become a relativist or an absolutist. I don’t pretend that the above has suddenly made the present confusion in our geo-politics and philosophical ideas suddenly clear and certain, but perhaps it can supply to thread to follow that may hopefully get us out of the confusing labyrinth in which we seem to be stuck in.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Happiness Is Around You

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Happiness is a beautiful combination of joy and pleasure, that gives the way to peace. Happiness is a subjective feeling but today’s world gives it an objective meaning. We have associated our happiness with wealth, bank balance, property, gold, and other materialistic things. But the basic formula of happiness lies in the forgotten pleasures. The pleasures once cherished by our elders are still the true sources of happiness, but unfortunately, we forget these ones.

Health, food, sleep, children, books, smiles, music, prayers, Quran, charity, timely help,
forgiveness, honesty, appreciation, support, outdoor games, socializing,…….all these components have lost their effects in our lives. We have forgotten to enjoy the pleasure of our good health because we do not care about that. Whereas, to have a healthy body, a healthy physique gives the ultimate pleasure of being fit in life and free from diseases.

Everyone is hurrying and running away. We are unable to give proper time to sleep, to children, to elders, and most importantly to ourselves. Elders do not realize that their children need them. They consider it enough, to give all the material things to their kids. But they are mistaken. Children want their real-time. They have so many problems to share with their parents. It is their first and foremost right to have quality time with their elders. On the other side of the picture, kids are themselves now so busy in useless activities, that they almost do not bother to spend time with family. They have made their own corners,  which is making them a more introvert and un-socialized.

It is said that “A smile is not just a way to exhibit your happiness and well-being, it is also a way to make people good about themselves. “But we are misers and cowards to share our smile with others so that it may not spread like a wave of pleasure. We have become selfish almost at everything.

Similarly, forgiveness enables you to decide about your relationship with others based on happiness. In this state, you are tolerating others and in a long way, you feel closer to other persons.
But we the so-called “good human beings” like to take revenge, We like people hurting back in a more hard way. We do not forgive. We are egoistic. We like seeing others in pain. We enjoy to see them in a more miserable condition and in more hardships. We do not like to forgive others easily. We do not like to help others. We are harsh. We cannot see others’ happiness.

Life is wonderful and worth living, but we have made it very unhappy by creating ethnic, provincial, national and international conflicts. We live in a continuous race state of the race, running for our desires and positions. I do not condom this living style as I understand for such people, happiness is all about getting things. But to neglect many other things that are the true sources of bringing happiness in life is not a good idea. Do find some positive ways to find happiness in life. Happiness that would last forever. The happiness that is collective, constructive and subjective. 

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New Social Compact

New lives, new freedoms: How labour migration empowers Nepali women

Neha Choudhary

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When I first met Ram Kumari Chaudhary, she was an extremely shy, but solemn, 19-year-old. She told me she wanted to go to work in Jordan to support her parents, adding that there were few opportunities to find a decent job in Nepal. Soon afterwards, in 2017, I learned that she had found a job in Jordan’s booming garment industry, earning, on average, around US$350 a month. Every three or four months she faithfully sent back about three-quarters of her salary to her parents in Nepal.

After about 18 months, her father’s poor health forced her to resign and return home. She brought with her a refund of her social security contributions worth about US$500, as well as some other savings. Her employer in Jordan also gave her a free airfare home as a welfare gesture. When we met again she had metamorphosed into a confident young lady, emboldened by her worldly experience and proud of her achievements. “I was able to make a support building a small home for my parents in the village,” she told me. “I have been supporting my father’s treatment. I brought back a flat screen TV when I came back. I have a modest saving if I want to do something. And, I have already been offered a job in a factory here. Given my international experience, the salary package is also good. Had I stayed in Nepal, I would not have earned that much.”

Chaudhary’s household is one of the 57 per cent in Nepal receiving remittances from migrant workers. So important are these financial flows to the Nepali economy that they are equivalent to 26 per cent of the country’s GDP. And, they are growing. In the financial year 2018/19 alone the country received migrants’ remittances of NPR 879.26 billion (US$ 7.76 billion), up from NPR 231.72 billion (US$ 2.05 billion) in the fiscal year 2009/10[1].

25-year-old Maya Chepang Praja, from Chitwan, south-west of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, opted to work abroad to support the upbringing of her son, then aged three, after her husband abandoned them. Despite very little education, in Jordan she earned an average of USD275 per month – more than double the USD130 she was paid working at a factory in Nepal – and she was able to save most of this to send back to Nepal for her son.

Unfortunately, she was forced to return to Nepal after less than nine months of working in Jordan when her son, who was being cared for by his grandmother, had his leg crushed in an accident. “If the accident didn’t occur and if I had stayed back [in Jordan], I would have earned enough to give my son a good life, a good education. However, whatever I earned in the nine months helped me at least get his leg back. I will always be grateful for that,” she told me. She is now looking for another job abroad.

The importance of migration and remittances will continue to grow in Nepal, because approximately 500,000 individuals are entering the labour market annually but only one in 10 are finding jobs. In these circumstances, it seems close to impossible to lead a quality life, with access to health, education and decent housing, without going for foreign employment. Furthermore, as these young women’s stories show, opportunities to work overseas in decent jobs have also made an important contribution to the empowerment of Nepali women in a broader sense of the term. This is seldom taken into consideration in larger studies on the socio-political impact of remittances and foreign employment.

ILO

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New Social Compact

The drive for quality education worldwide, faces ‘mammoth challenges’

MD Staff

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Young women return home after classes in the town of Bol in Chad. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Aligning inclusive, quality education with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was centre-stage on Friday, as the President of the UN General Assembly held a high-level interactive meeting for the International Day of Education.       

“The education sector is wrestling with mammoth challenges worldwide”, said Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, in his message for the day.

Listing them, he said there was a “precipitate decline” in the quality and standards of education; a widening knowledge gap between students in technically advanced societies and those in developing countries; a crisis of learning in conflict zones; growing school bullying, and “the declining esteem of the teaching profession” overall.

Mr. Muhammad-Bande maintained that today’s education must “bridge the yawning gap” between the modern employment needs for specialized skills, and actual learning opportunities.

“School curricula have yet to anticipate and respond to workplace needs for hands-on, vocational, ICT applications, and sundry technical skills, while still advancing the traditional scholastic pursuits”, he stated.

Moreover, he highlighted, “the significance of the deficits in education outcome becomes obvious when viewed alongside the spiralling population crisis”. 

Education in a crisis

The fate of school children trapped in conflict zones deserves even more urgent attention.

According to UNICEF, in 2017, 500 attacks were staged on schools in 20 countries worldwide. In 15 of those 20, troops and rebel forces turned classrooms into military posts.

Thousands of children were recruited to fight, sometimes made to serve as suicide bombers, or forced to endure direct attacks.

“The learning environment may also be rendered unsafe by gun-toting, machete-wielding, gangs and unruly youths, and by sexual predators on school premises”, Mr. Muhammad-Bande said.

And natural disasters pose additional threats to the learning environment.

Cyclones, hurricanes and storms are among the climatic conditions that periodically wreak havoc on school buildings and facilities, making learning difficult, if not impossible.

“The choices that education stakeholders make have direct impact on various social groups, particularly, disadvantaged groups like rural communities, the urban poor, persons with disabilities, and women”, upheld the PGA, noting that nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are female, mostly in under-developed countries.

Choice also becomes critical in the struggle to elevate the status of the teaching profession, recruit competent and motivated teachers, and expose teachers to innovative techniques.

But there are bright spots he said: “Forward-looking education policies have contributed to the attainment of SDG targets in some countries”, asserted Mr. Muhammad-Bande.

And participants at this year’s International Day of Education are given the opportunity “to share international good practices in inclusive quality education”.

Partnerships are key

Education enhances the “analytical, inventive and critical thinking capacities of human beings”, the Assembly President said, adding that in the process, it accelerates each nation’s technological attainments and economic growth.

“When a society remains perpetually under-developed, it must among other things re-evaluate its education system”, said Mr. Muhammad-Bande. “If the system is dysfunctional or does not facilitate the acquisition of pertinent knowledge and skills, the economy will, at best, stagnate, and at worst, collapse”. 

Bearing in mind the “tremendous amount of work” that lies ahead, he shared his belief that partnerships can play an important role in implementing and attaining the SDGs, which is why his office “has placed strong emphasis on engendering partnerships across key priority areas”, including education.

In conclusion, Mr. Muhammad-Bande urged Member States and other key partners to examine the feasibility and value-added support in establishing a network of key existing education networks to exchange information and ideas, “including sources of support, relating to all aspects of education”.

Power of education

“Education has the power to shape the world”, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed spelled out at the podium.

“Education protects men and women from exploitation in the labour market” and “empowers women and gives them opportunities to make choices”, she said. 

Moreover, it can help change behaviour and perceptions, thereby fighting climate change and unsustainable practices. A quality experience in the classroom helps promote mutual respect and understanding between people; combat misperceptions, prejudice and hate speech; and prevent violent extremism. 

“Without education, we cannot achieve any of the SDGs”, Ms. Mohammed flagged.

And yet, with 2030 looming on the horizon, the world is lagging behind, prompting the Secretary-General to issue a global call for a Decade of Action, to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs.

“The situation in education is alarming…because of the crisis in the number of children, young people and adults who are not in education”, as well as because many who are, are not learning. 

And refugees and migrants face additional challenges. 

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the proportion of refugees enrolled in secondary education is 24 per cent, only three per cent of whom have access to higher education.

“We have the power to shape education, but only if we work together and really bring the partnerships that are necessary to provide quality education”, she concluded. “We have a duty to step up our efforts, so that quality education for all is no longer a goal for tomorrow, but a reality”. 

Invest in education

Action for “the four Ps on which our future depends”, namely people, prosperity, the planet and peace, is imperative, according to the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and CulturalOrganization, UNESCO in her Friday message.

Although education is “a valuable resource for humanity”, Director-General Audrey Azoulay pointed out that it is “all too scarce for millions of people around the world”.

A global learning crisis, confirmed by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, is a major cause for concern as it is also a crisis for prosperity, for the planet, for peace and for people”, she said, urging everyone to take action for education “because education is the best investment for the future”.

UNESCO has been charged with coordinating the international community’s efforts to achieve SDG 4, quality education for all.

“First and foremost”, the UNESCO chief said, “our Organization takes action for people, by making education an instrument of inclusion and, therefore, of empowerment”.

Changing lives, transforming communities

For her part, Mona Juul, President of the UN Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, maintained that education is “the most powerful means to escape poverty”.

“It changes lives, transforms communities and paves the way towards productive, sustainable and resilient societies in which children – girls and boys – can reach their full potential”, she expanded, urging everyone to strengthen their efforts to manifest a world in which every child receives a quality education that allows growth, prosperity, empowerment and so they can “make meaningful contributions to communities big and small, everywhere”. 

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