Quotation 8: ‘On Evasive Thinking’ by Václav Havel

“Some time ago, as we know, a stone window ledge came loose and fell from a building on Vodičkova Street, killing a woman. Not long afterward, an article appeared in Literarní noviny commenting on the event, or rather on the spontaneous wave of outrage that followed. The author began by assuring us that window ledges ought not to fall, that it was entirely proper for the public to criticize such things, and how wonderful it was that we could openly criticize such things today. He then went on to talk about the enormous progress we’d made as a whole, and to illustrate this he mentioned that whereas before, young girls used to wear duffel coats, today they dress in the latest Parisian fashions. This rather graphic example of the achievements of our time ultimately led him to ask whether there wasn’t, after all, just a little bit too much criticism, and he appealed to us not to limit ourselves to what he called local matters, but to focus on themes that were more worthy of the dignity of the human mission and more appropriate to the humanistic notion of man. He concluded with a challenge to literature, too, to free itself from all petty, local, municipal matters and to begin, at last, to deal with mankind and our prospects for the future.

Fortunately, the public opinion to which this author had appealed ignored his advice and last week, when a second window ledge fell on Spálená Street and killed someone else, an even greater wave of outraged protests followed. As it had done many time before, the public again showed more intelligence and humanity than the writer, for it had understood that the so-called prospects for mankind are nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry about who might be killed by a third window ledge and what will happen should it fall on a group of nursery-school children out for a walk.

If the author of the article were a cold cynic, fully aware of the amoral implications of his conclusions, his piece would have been no more than a harmless oddity meriting scant attention. But – and this is what is tragic about the whole affair – it was written with the purest of intentions, in the sincere belief that it was contributing, albeit tactically, to a good cause.

Here is a clear example of how any intention can become its exact opposite if it is carried forward in the conventionalized, pseudo-ideological thinking that has become so dangerously domesticated in all areas of our social life. and thus crippled its capacity to intervene in that reality effectively.

This happens chiefly through a ritualization of language. From being a means of signifying reality, and of enabling us to come to an understanding of it, language seems to have become an end in itself. In this process, language – and, because it is related to it, thought as well – may appear to have increased in importance (the duty to name things having been superseded by the duty to qualify things ideologically), but in fact language is thus degraded: the imputation to language of functions that are not proper to it has made it impossible for language to fulfill the function it was meant to fulfill. And thus, ultimately, language is deprived of its most essential importance.

Notice, for example, how often the words we use these days are more important than what we are talking about. The word – as such – has ceased to be a sign for a category, and has gained a kind of occult power to transform one reality into another. Arguments are not carried on through ideas, but through concepts. We need only to use the magic word “disproportion,” and something unforgivably half-baked is suddenly not only excused but may even be raised to the level of an historical necessity. Sadism need only be cloaked in the grandiose notion of an “offense against socialist legality” and suddenly it ceases to appear to us in such an evil light. It’s enough to call a fallen window ledge a “local matter,” and criticism of the way buildings are maintained as “municipal criticism,” and we immediately feel that nothing so terrible has happened. It’s enough for a good old fireman, a quite ordinary man whose job it is to put out fires, to be called an “incendiary engineer,” and immediately we not only think of him as having some higher function, we also begin to be somewhat afraid of him. And finally, when you need to save money by leaving the upkeep of buildings not to a superintendent, but to a voluntary brigade of doctors, lawyers, and office clerks working on weekends you need only to call it “socialist maintenance by the tenants” and a doctor chipping away at a rotting window ledge on his building is warmed by the feeling that in doing so, he is helping to fulfil some higher phase in the development of socialism.

Such verbal mysticism, of course, is a rather simple and transparent trick. What is more dangerous is the manipulation of certain established relational schemata.

A typical example is how reality can be liquidated with the help of a false “contextualization”: the praiseworthy attempt to see things in their wider context becomes so formalized that instead of applying that technique in particular, unique ways, appropriate to a given reality, it becomes a single and widely used model of thinking with a special capacity to dissolve – in the vagueness of all the possible wider contexts – everything particular in that reality. Thus what looks like an attempt to see something in a complex way in fact results in a complex form of blindness. For if we can’t see individual, specific things, we can’t see anything at all. And the more we know only what is apparent about reality, the less we know about reality in fact.

This mechanism can clearly be seen at work in the article I was talking about: the falling window ledges and criticism of the condition of the facades are set so masterfully in the context of the world that we end up with the powerful feeling that if window ledges were not falling off our buildings in Prague we would have long ago been involved in World War Three, so there is something healthy in the fact that they are falling.

If it was taken for granted that aboriginal, social man somehow managed to throw himself together a shelter that would not fall on his head, then it must be taken equally for granted that in a modern socialist society should be able to provide people safe passage through the streets. This is where the whole thing begins and ends, and all the other “ifs, ands, and buts” are just attempts to muddy the water, cloud over the matter, and change the subject. Factories, housing estates, and power dams are no doubt wonderful things, and we must even appreciate the fact that girls no longer wear duffel coats, but this has nothing to do with window ledges. When we talk about window ledges, we should talk about window ledges and not bring the prospects of mankind into it. And if we do, then only in the sense that in the given context, people have only tow possible prospects: either the window ledges fall on them or they don’t. And in any case, who knows whether the preventative maintenance of facades in Prague was not the neglected precisely because someone, somewhere, was waxing eloquent about the prospects for mankind instead of paying attention to where particular men and women live.

Everything is related to everything else, of course. But still, I fear that Engels would want to retract that idea if he knew what use it would eventually be put to – that is, allowing everyone to talk about something other than what he ought to be talking about.

The application of this false contextualization in the casual field is usually accompanied by its application in the historical field: delight in the fact that today – as opposed to recent times – one can bravely and publicly criticize falling window ledges derives from a comparison that, while based on history, is so pointless that it inevitably leads to the quite ahistorical and absurd impression that such criticisms are not something every society takes completely for granted, but rather an admirable and original achievement of the present stage of socialism. But what kind of socialism is it that takes something so obviously normal for an achievement?

Another characteristic mechanism of this dematerialized way of thinking is something that, for my own purposes, I have called “dialectical metaphysics.” By that I mean the type of fetishized dialectics that – by freezing into formal phraseological schemata – degenerates (dialectically) into the pure metaphysics of vacuous verbal balancing acts, expressed in constructions such as “on the one hand – but on the other hand,” “in a certain sense yes, but in another sense no,” “we must not, on the one hand, overestimate, nor, on the other hand,” “though some characteristics, in a certain situation, may – other characteristics, in another situations, may also…,” and so on and so on.

When we lose touch with reality, we inevitably lose the capacity to influence reality effectively. And the weaker that capacity is, the greater our illusion that we have effectively influenced reality. Just think, for instance, of how confidently we make predictions about what will be, and with what remarkable precision we can interpret, explain, and classify what has already happened. Yet we never seem to notice how suspiciously often what happens – in fact – does not conform to what – according to our prognoses – was to have happened. We know why it had to be different. The only thing that causes trouble is knowing what will really happen. To know that assumes knowing how things really are now. But that is precisely where the catch lies: between a detailed prediction of the future and a broad interpretation of the past, there is somehow no room for what is most important of all – a down-to-earth analysis of the present.

And so, in the end, the only thing that fails to conform to our wishes is reality. Not surprisingly: we don’t have time it. In any case, it’s generally recognized today that it’s better to plan less, but on the basis of genuine research, than to indulge in unbridled planning and then to explain to people every two weeks why some basic commodity is unavailable. It is probably less important that someone be willing or able to explain, in terms of a world view, why a window ledge fell into the street, than it is for him to know that measures to take ensure that the Jurásek Bridge, for example, won’t collapse in ten years.  In any case, anyone who has the latter ability will not, on the whole, require the former.

If I were to give a name to the collection of though mechanisms I’ve been talking about, I would call it something like “evasive thinking.” That is, a way of thinking that turns away from the core of the matter to something else – from a fallen window ledge to the prospects for mankind, from the word “laziness” to the word “disproportion,” from the word “cowardice” to the word “tactics,” or from the concrete fact of personal guilt to the abstract category called “the atmosphere of the cult of personality.” If, for instance, one quite logically says that a power dam was built by people and not by “the atmosphere of enthusiasm for building,” one must also admit that the false testimony and forged documents of the showtrials were not created by the atmosphere of the cult of personality, but also by concrete people. To say anything else is pure evasion.

We live in a time of struggle between two ways of thinking: thinking evasively and thinking to the point. Between half-baked thinking and consistent thinking.

We live in a time when reality is in conflict with platitude, when a fact is in conflict with an a priori interpretation of it, when common sense is in conflict with a distorted rationality. It is a time of conflict between theory that plays fast and loose with practice, and theory that learns from practice; a conflict between two gnoseologies: the one that, from an a priori interpretation of the world, deduces how that reality should be seen, and the one that, from how reality is seen, deduces how that reality must be interpreted. In my opinion, we can replace the first gnoseology – the metaphysical one  with the second, the dialectical one.”

* * *

By Václav Havel in Open Letters (1991).

Italics in the original, underlining added by myself. The above text is the first, more theoretical, part of Václav Havel’s 1965 Speech at Union of Writers. Despite being written as a critique of people’s mental state during really existing socialism, I find this text to have a certain timeless quality. In addition, it is a criticism which transgresses our established political patterns. On the one hand, one is tempted to initially read this text as a critique of political correctness avant la lettre. On the other hand, one is reminded of those who deride the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “all lives matter” when one reads “When we talk about window ledges, we should talk about window ledges and not bring the prospects of mankind into it.” This makes “evasive thinking” a very fruitful concept both for analysing politics and for maintaining one’s own mental and moral discipline.


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