What would happen if we more often put away our prestigious masks of knowledge and instead freed our sincerest questions? Not only in individual conversations, but also in public. How would our voices sound if we openly gave ourselves time to wait for clarity? What would philosophy sound like in a society that does not normally allow time for reflection? That is the question in this little post.
A long time ago, I heard a TV conversation with a few experts around the table. I do not remember what the conversation was about. That I still think about it, is due to one of the participants, Anna Christensen (1936-2001), Sweden’s first female professor of law. The deep sincerity in her way of speaking made a strong impression on me. If philosophy is born wherever people think for themselves, then I want to say that it was born in Anna Christensen, whose voice in my ears sounded heavenly free and independent. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this birth of free thinking occurred in a male labyrinth, which hardly gave a woman any leeway. Faced with the relentless walls of the labyrinth, there is no choice but to find freedom at the source: in oneself. The freedom of the powerful in the labyrinth cannot be compared to the freedom from the labyrinth. Anna Christensen’s voice was free in this greater sense. It came from the vastness outside.
That I remember the TV conversation is also due to the unexpected effect that Anna Christensen’s words had on the pleasant conversation between experts, under the competent leadership of the anchor man. The male experts enjoyed each other’s company. Everything they said was oriented towards the others. They resembled an academic men’s choir, who enjoyed singing their songs of knowledge a little more publicly than usual, in the spotlight. My impression was that Anna Christensen did not really orient herself towards the others or towards the songs they sang. She orientated herself towards the question, which she had probably thought about herself and which she now turned her attention to, while she heard the others relate to each other by alternately singing what they thought they knew about the predetermined theme. Once she got the opportunity to speak, time stopped. All the thought patterns that had kept the TV conversation going stopped. The whole 20th century stopped for a moment and someone started thinking for herself. The words were free from the mental patterns that governed the conversation. They came from a calmer place, from a simpler place, where we see more clearly because we do not stir up intellectual dust. When Anna Christensen had said what needed to be said, it became completely silent in the studio. How do you continue an easy studio conversation when someone has put an end to time itself?
To make the conversation flow again, to revive the 20th century, the anchor man had to say something expected, reconnect the conversation to familiar mental patterns, and stir up some intellectual dust to react to. What a relief that spread among the dumbfounded participants in the studio! At last they were back in the labyrinth, in the movement of time, where there were thought patterns to follow. This stopping and restarting of humanly organized time was repeated every time Anna Christensen spoke.
Anna Christensen may not have changed the 20th century, but she could halt its mechanical repetition of mental patterns within herself. She could stop and wait for clarity. What significance do pensive voices like hers have when they find their way into the present? I continue to soar in the uncertainty of that question, because no one can know what happens when someone dares to wonder and speak completely sincerely.
Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.
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