On Commitment and Becoming Committed: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue
On 1 - 3 June the international and interdisciplinary workshop “On Commitment and Becoming Committed: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue” took place in the Haus der Universität Bern which was organized by Jenny Tillmanns (Karman Center, University of Bern), Dana Freibach-Heifetz (Tel Aviv University) and Luise Müller (University of Bern).
The grants for the workshop were awarded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF), the Max and Elsa Beer-Brawand Fonds and the Mittelbauvereinigung der Universität Bern (MVUB).
The aim of the workshop was to provide a forum for the exchange of views on an issue that is rarely discussed but is of high relevance due to the existential loss of ties, which were previously provided by, for example, ideologies and religion. Finally, reflection on the subject of commitment is needed owing to today's lack of political and cultural utopias that leaves a vacuum, which could be filled by the various forms of commitment, whether good or bad.
A group of 15 young and senior scholars, mostly from Europe and Israel, and from a variety of disciplines in the Humanities met in order to discuss “On Commitment and Becoming Committed”.
As an outline the organisers suggested an approach to commitment from three different but interrelated angles: the conceptual, the contextual and the practical understanding and manifestation(s) of commitment. Whereas the conceptual perspective considers general questions regarding the nature and meaning of commitment, it is the contextual perspective that examines the universal phenomenon in different, more specific contexts. Finally, the practical perspective analyses actual manifestations of commitment within historical contexts and social circumstances, and confronts the challenge of arousing various kinds of commitment, such as moral, historical and legal, for individuals and within societies.
The workshop was finally divided into five panels according to the various approaches to commitment. The first panel, Religious Commitment, pursued a conceptual approach and was focused on religious commitment and its relation to other kinds of commitments in law, ethics and politics. The second panel, Commitment Responding to Crises, pursued a contextual but rather theoretical approach by focusing on different responses to crises in various (historical) contexts. The third panel Committed Agents in History offered a historical perspective of and on specific committed agents, both individuals and groups and therefore pursued a contextual approach but in a practice-related sense. The fourth panel Commitment Beyond Boundaries continued the historical perspective but with the focus on the challenge of transcending commitment. After all, the fifth panel, Contentious Commitment, dealt with the ambiguous character of commitment.
The first panel – Religious Commitment – was focused on religious commitment and its relation to other kinds of commitments in law, ethics and politics.
The paper of Theo Witkamp (Theology) from the Protestant Theological University in Doorn (The Netherlands) The Ethics of the Inner Man: Mysticism, Commitment and Law in Paul, the Apostle discussed the views of Paul, the apostle, regarding the tension between the commitment to do good (according to the divine law) and evil that abides within human beings. He considered the ethical role of the mysticism of Christ to be a ‘source of inner power’ for an inner change of ego that enables a man to follow the (good) law. Theo Witkamp pointed out four general criteria of commitment. First and foremost he underlined that sincere motivations do not necessarily reflect commitment to “the good”. Consequently he puts the finger to the most fundamental point that is the normative question about the right cause. Secondly, for Witkamp commitment is not only a concern of right thinking and right acting but of the whole person and thirdly, it needs a transcendent goal and touches on our existential needs”. Fourthly he stressed that “commitment needs the ethics of the inner man, who needs renewal in order to be able to play its role.”
The paper of Youval Jobani (Jewish Thought) from Princeton University (US) Commitments in Conflict: Spinoza on Moral & Political Commitments outlined the tension between two different and contradicting models of religious commitments that are implied in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. One is substantiated in the ethical, wherein obedience to God is reduced to obedience to the laws of morality; and the other is substantiated in the political, wherein obedience to God is reduced to obedience to political law.
The paper of Jerome Yehuda Gellman (Theology) from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba (Israel) The Varieties of Religious Commitment analyzed the nature of religious commitment and gave an overview of a variety of religious commitments according to their reference (personal and group-wise commitments), their grounds (commitment that comes from belief and commitment that comes from acceptance), and their status (tentative and decisive commitment). Jerome Yehuda Gellman offered a notion of a “tentatively decisive commitment” as a genuine option for a religious commitment that is more suitable for pluralist societies.
The second panel – Commitment Responding to Crises – was focused on the challenge of commitment due to specific circumstances and contexts.
The paper of Dana Freibach-Heifetz (Philosophy) from Tel Aviv University (Israel) Commitment to Love confronted the crisis of secularity that is the challenge of finding ways to justify an ethical commitment to love within a secular framework, where there is no God that can commit human beings to such an ethics or to enable it. In a first step Dana Freibach-Heifetz introduced the challenging nature of secular ethics of love by representing three models of relations between religious emotion and ethical love in reference first to Herman Cohen’s compassion, second Martin Buber’s conception of an I-Thou dialogue and third Emmanuel Levinas’ thought of the ethical relation as expressing a religious towards an absent God. Following this she offered a justification of secular commitment to love by truth and reason first in Virtue Ethics and second in Feminist Ethics which equally present a holistic – and consequently ontological – view of human beings. Thus she suggests as an alternative a justification of secular commitment in reference to Existentialism (and in particular Nietzsche) by rhetoric means that she call “critical seduction” and even more so her own version of “critical seduction” that is encapsulated in her conception of “secular grace”. Dana Freibach-Heifetz argues that “commitment to love is to be based on a holistic conception of human being, that addresses not only their reason (...) and their emotion (...) but to both emotion and reason, in order to awake and commit the will to love.” Hence, an “aesthetic perception of philosophy” needs to be considered in view of the challenge to commit to love.
The paper of Sandra Lehmann (Philosophy) from the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (Austria) Some basic Remarks on the Impossibility of Commitment principally questioned the concept of commitment “because it lacks an adequate and true interpretation of human action”. Therefore she did not refer – as originally intended – to commitment responding to crises but reflected upon the conception of commitment in its potential of arousing crises. She offered two terms which encompass fundamental criteria of commitment that are “attachment” and “devotion”. Whereas the first one does not cover freedom of decision, it is the second one that refers to a particular (exclusive) horizon. Hence, these two aspects of commitment should, following Sandra Lehmann, be considered in a theory of human action. However, she identified an ideological character of commitment because of the very nature of the relationship between the person committed and the object of commitment. The committed person needs to withdraw its personal interests and needs to identify with the object of commitment “which is supposedly of higher value”. In order to avoid a totalitarian misuse of commitment Sandra Lehmann suggests Kant’s concept of practical reason, knowing that itis an ideal one. For this reason she introduced Nietzsche’s critique of morality in order to keep in mind the “situation-bound character of human action”. For Sandra Lehmann, various variables of commitment need to be considered such as (personal) interest and (historical) context in order to avoid “an a priori hierarchy of values”. She rather suggests the concept of solidarity which is less ideological and therefore less dangerous.
The paper of Elisabeth Gallas (Cultural Studies) from the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig (Germany) “Facing up to, and resisting of reality“ – Hannah Arendt’s conception of ethics as paradigm for commitment analyzed the impact of the Holocaust on the thinking and activity of Hannah Arendt. She focused on Arendt’s conceptions of understanding, judging and intervening in reference to her biographical backgrounds and historical experience, which lead to a specific paradigm of commitment. The impossibility to understand the Holocaust is nonetheless accompanied by the ‘need to understand’ which represents Arendts’ fundamental basis and urge for any form of commitment. She strongly advocated historical judgment in order to avoid any form of historical indifference; even though the Holocaust represents an epistemic challenge as such. Interrelated to her sense of understanding and differentiating is her sense of intervening which she did into the public realm in various forms as, for instance, in her activity for the Jewish cultural restitution after 1945. Elisabeth Gallas concluded that Arendt’s “commitment to reason and thought, to intervention and activity” originated “in a search for an answer to the cataclysms of the 20th century” and the hope “to help shaping a better future by developing a decisive consciousness of the past”.
The third panel – Committed Agents in History – was focused on specific committed agents, both individuals and groups, in history.
The paper of Irene Aue (History) from the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) Commitment to history? An approach to the works of the historian Selma Stern-Täubler dealt with the study on Prussian-Jewish history of the historian Selma Stern-Täubler which was written during 50 years. It is most striking that Stern’s perspective on this issue hardly changed in the course of history and, in particular, after the Holocaust. Irene Aue questions whether this continuity originates in a specific commitment to history. However, even though the study itself did not befall changes Irene Aue delineates a change in the very commitment of the historian Selma Stern. Whereas she originally intended to serve the presence (via history) this changed by the course of history and, in particular, the Holocaust to a future orientation. She was aware that succeeding researchers in German-Jewish history fundamentally depend on sources and their critical editing. However, Selma Stern was deeply embedded in German intellectual history of which she was as much a contemporary as a historian. Irene Aue suggests her loyalty – in terms of embeddedness – towards her cultural and historical heritage as an adequate understanding of Stern’s commitment.
The paper of Lutz Fiedler (History) from the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig
(Germany) Middle Eastern Internationalism – Jewish-Arab networks and the
struggle for a common future investigated the activity of a network of non-Zionist
Israeli Jews and Arab oppositionists from various countries during the 70s and 80s
whose members were participating in the Journal of Revolutionary Socialists of the
Middle East Khamsin which was founded 1975 in Paris. They were united in a
commitment to social internationalism and the belief in a “universal future, which
should transcend and bridge the different groups and origins of the region”. Lutz
Fiedler shed light on the Journal’s members who partially belonged to the Israeli
Socialist Organisation Matzpen and their counterparts on the Arab side, for instance Sadik J. Al-Azm. They equally experienced exclusion from their societies by the accusation of being traitors. In continuity to the ideas of the former Brit Shalom circle, also the members of Matzpen opposed “the use of historical rights for political claims”, became critics of a Jewish nation state and rather promoted a binational state for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs equally. The Arab intellectuals in turn criticized the lack of modernisation and secularisation in the Arab world. Instead of that, they wanted to adopt the Arabs to modernity. Finally, Lutz Fiedler summarized, that the members of Khamsin were characterized by the understanding, that a mutual recognition is only possible by transcending the different past.
The paper of Luise Müller (Sociology) from the Institute of History at the University of Bern (Switzerland) Why to stand up? Initial Motivations for the East German Peace Movement in the Eighties discussed the question what is the primary motivation for a person or group to become actively committed to a certain goal, focusing on another group: the highly influential East German Peace Movement, consisting of independent local groups, who were active in the 80’s. Examining interviews with its members, Luise Müller offered various reasons of becoming active. First and foremost, the activists did not question the existing structures as such. They had rather an urge for improvement. Instead of considering global concerns the activists were above all motivated by inner political issues as, for instance, feeling “offended by unreasonable and therefore unacceptable demands of the Eats German system”. However, the military shape of the GDR represented frequently the impulse for a critical reference to their state. Luise Müller outlined the religious background of many interviewees and “a general affirmation of the basic Christian values”. Even more so she claims to consider the social dimension of the peace movement and the “reinterpretation” of the anniversary of the bombing of the city on February 13, 1945”. She concludes “that it was mainly personal concerns, issues of personal relevance, which made them commit themselves to opposition.”
The fourth panel – Commitment Beyond Boundaries – continued the historical perspective but with the focus on the challenge of transcending commitment.
The paper of Jackie Feldman (Anthropology) from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba (Israel) Contemporary Civil Ritual, Emotional Effervescence and Commitment examined the potential of contemporary civil rituals to engender commitments to ideals and communities that transcend the boundaries of the nation-state, and the conditions for such an engendering. Jacky Feldman presented two counter-examples of Holocaust-related ceremonies which brought together disparate communities with overlapping commitments. In two encounters of German-Israeli dialogue groups the members expressed and negotiated their various intersecting commitments through ritual performance (intertwining ritual performance and verbal analysis). Jacky Feldman advocates “a ritual literacy and reflexivity, as an important tool for questioning existing commitments and posing new possibilities in a world of multiple commitments and more fluid identities.” He describes ritual literacy as “a project combining an awareness of the elements of ritual as well as the skills of ritual critique, with the performance of rituals as an ongoing project.” Furthermore, ritual shall help crossing boundaries by promoting new coalitions, reflecting the “taken-for-granted understandings of the world and the development of resistance to them, as well as promoting the recognition of otherness. For this to take place, what is required is the somewhat counterintuitive fusion of ritual and reflexivity.”
The paper of Regula Ludi (History) from the Institute of History at the University of Bern (Switzerland) Universalistic and Other-Regarding? The Commitment of International NGOs in a Historical Perspective examined, from a historical perspective, another kind of commitment that transcends boundaries of nation and culture – that of international NGOs during the late 18th-19th century, whose members were committed to the well-being of strangers from distant parts of the globe. Regula Ludi’s paper investigates the cognitive concepts, the language and the moral sentiments that enabled such solidarity.
The paper of Wolfgang Lienemann (Theology) from the Theological Faculty at the University of Bern (Switzerland) Transnational Church Partnerships in Transition Countries addressed the topic of commitment that transcends boundaries in the context of the Christian church: why and how the common understanding of church unity leads to certain types of mutual commitment, interchurch aid and vicarious acting, within the church and towards suffering non-Christians alike; while focusing on transnational church partnerships in countries which try to overcome situations of injustice and terror.
While the first four panels mainly offered analyses of manifold phenomena and concepts of commitment – religious, ethical, social and political ones – the fifth panel was dedicated to the ambiguity of commitment. Indeed, the very ambiguous nature of commitment was emphasized throughout the workshop.
The fifth panel, Contentious Commitment, dealt with the ambiguous character of commitment.
The paper of Jenny Tillmanns (Cultural Studies/Philosophy) from the Karman Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Bern (Switzerland) Torn between Commitment and No Commitment. Demonstrated by the life and work of Adrian Leverkühn, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s “Dr Faustus” opposed the common reading (and reception) of the Doctor Faustus. Whereas Leverkühn is in the novel consistently presented – by his friend Serenus Zeitblom who is as well the narrator of his biography – as a herald of National Socialism it is to the contrary Zeitblom’s thinking considering Germany and Leverkühn that is characterized as fundamentally fatalistic. Whereas Leverkühn is reflecting on (and practising) aesthetics it is Zeitblom that is practising an aestheticism of politics. Whereas Leverkühn is applying “making unlike the like” in his music (in reference to the “strict style”) it is the National Socialism that is intending to apply the annihilation of differences to the world (political equalization). Zeitblom either does not name or does not recognise this fundamental difference. Thus, he is aesthetizising barbarism and contributing to the indifference towards it. Against the background of this reading Jenny Tillmanns suggests an understanding of commitment as a necessary link that makes people striving for something. She asked whether commitment is not the link between missing and striving and offered the image of the link as a bridge which is connecting two shores. However, sanctions – Jenny Tillmanns argued – are the key to an understanding of the Doctor Faustus. They essentially maintain the tension between the backward-looking missing and the forward-looking striving. Jenny Tillmanns assumed that commitment presupposes this tension and dialectic. The point is that a total annihilation of differences represents indifference. If anything is the same it does not matter anymore. If nothing matters it means a total devaluation of any concerns. Indifference might signify but seem definitely to support inhumanity. According to Jenny Tillmanns it is the tension itself that produces reservation, suspiciousness and critical attitude in relation to what we actually do and to our motives.
The paper of Martino Mona (Law) from the Law Faculty of the University of Bern (Switzerland) Commitment, Criminal Law, and the Separation of Law and Morality introduced the perspective of the criminal law, and the tension within it between the general principle that commitment (or acting morally) is irrelevant as far as abiding by the criminal law is concerned and can even lead to misuses of law, and the fact that in some cases an excessive lack of commitment to do “good” / accordance with basic moral values is blamed on the offender and forms the basis of his punishment.
The paper of Paul Mendes-Flohr (Philosophy) from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago (US) Reflections on the Ethical and Political Dialectics of Commitment emphasised the “dubious virtue” of commitment which is “a coat of many colours”. On the one hand people are committed to various political and religious ideals which may – and much too often do – lead to fundamentalism. On the other hand any society requires forms of (social) commitment which “in ethical theory is called “supererogation”, acts which transcend the moral norms a society absolutely requires of all its members”. However, Paul Mendes-Flohr asks “what can inspire and motivate the denizens of a post-messianic – or if you will, a post-ideological – age?” He offers the “biblical concept of compassion, of solicitous concern for the disinherited” but which requires in reference to Hermann Cohen justice. Furthermore, he refers to the concept of a “decent society” (Avishai Margalit) which “actively seeks to minimize the humiliation of all its members”. In conclusion, Paul Mendes-Flohr claims the acknowledgement of the essential criteria of “moral luck” which has a huge impact on our reflection on and action in the world which is “not only a privilege, but also enjoins a responsibility”: “As a homo politicus one is to be hold and decisive while as a homo problematicus one is to demand of oneself to be humble and ever on guard against one’s ideological vanities and ethical conceits“.
Generally speaking the vague term, conception and use of commitment has been critically affirmed. Indeed, everyone agreed in the lack and therefore need either to substantiate the term, conception and use of commitment or to offer an adequate alternative such as, for instance, motivation, involvement, engagement, obligation, confession, etc. It became obvious that the diverse approaches relied on various notions of commitment which accordingly led to an affirmation of multiple notions and associations. The problem indeed is that the term, conception and use of commitment cannot sufficiently be encapsulated in the above mentioned terms. To the contrary all those terms are essential ingredients of commitment but – and this is decisive – different forms of commitment. Hence, is it helpful to keep up with a term that is as vague and does not help clarifying what it shall express? However, the alternative terms do not capture sufficiently the holistic but – nonetheless seemingly – hollow term “commitment”. How to deal with this paradoxical situation? On the one hand the term commitment is so familiar in our daily use of language and on the other hand it is so little reflected upon in academia. Though this is not true for the specific understanding of “social commitment” which is the object of research as, for instance, in social sciences. Margaret Gilbert invented the term “joint commitment” which she applied in her plural subject theory. Of course, all lectures somehow referred to social commitment or the social dimension of commitment. Indeed, a wide range of reasons, manifestations and conflicts of (social) commitment has been presented. However, at this stage it would be of the utmost importance to systematize the different approaches and perspectives in order to elaborate fundamental criteria for any understanding of commitment. Though it seems to be difficult to find one determinate definition of commitment so it seems to be appropriate to delineate its manifold contours. Such a methodological comprehension should be guided by the question “What makes people act?” Furthermore, a profound reflection on the interrelatedness of empirical case studies (which illustrate, confirm and proof the various phenomenon of commitment) and the (wishful) demand in a normative answer needs to be permanently considered and elaborated. Moreover, the before mentioned paradox is rather a challenge in English speaking cultures because, for instance, there is no such term like commitment in German. To the contrary, in German one can find the alternative terms which are much more specific and precise. As a conclusion it seems to be ultimately of value to dedicate further reflection on the issue of commitment. However, it requires a much more precise question in reference to the cognitive interest and a much more specific (historical, social, cultural, etc.) context. This does not contradict the ongoing demand in interdisciplinary approach. To the contrary, we came to the conclusion that precisely an interdisciplinary approach needs even more so a precise question within a more or less specific context in order to avoid that everybody simply contributes but without connecting to each other.
We would like to thank the SNF, the MVUB and the Max and Elsa Beer-Brawand-Fonds most sincerely for providing the option of funding such projects as the workshop. It represents an extraordinary opportunity and chance for young researchers to discover, develop and strengthen their skills; and additionally to realize ideas und maintain a dialogue beyond borders.
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