An interview with Juan-Ramón Capella

This post is also available in: Spanish

Your field of expertise is the Philosophy of Law, but your last book is a memoir. Is a text like that written for posterity?

There’s a quote from Keats going around in my head: “here lies one whose name was writ in water.” I thought it was fantastic as a thought on posterity coming from a great poet. I don’t consider long posterities, because I know the size and usefulness of what I do. It’s for very close people, for living people. In this case, my memoirs have been induced by the re-writing of Spanish history that has been going on these last 30 or 35 years. There has been very little reflection about the past. I think I now have a more complete vision of what the PSUC (Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, equivalent to the Communist Party and formed by aggregation of many different platforms during the civil war of 1936-39), for example, was: it was the main anti-Franco opposition party and it diluted into nothingness in a few years. Or of the people who became enthusiastic doing really dangerous things back then and that, later, became easily accommodated to the system we have now. It seemed to me that telling that experience and where it came from was important, in order not to let this false narration of a history, which is much more complex than people usually say, be accepted without protest.

But you have opted for a personal memoir. Why not an analytical book?

This, for two subjective reasons. Firstly, when I started I felt incapable of analysis. I was too worried by the possibility that my life ended soon. Secondly, I knew I had a storyteller inside. Even in my job -in the field of Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law- I have been very narrative. I wanted to test myself in this field because I thought I could do well.

Death changes one’s view because, without it, everything would be different. Does it give meaning to life?

No. Death is what takes meaning away from life. Life can be lived and well, in the worst circumstances, as long as you have a project. When you can’t carry it forward, life has no meaning. I have heard this from other people who were at a real risk of losing their lives and I agree. Life has a meaning while there’s a project to follow or chase. If not, life is a mere biological fact.

In your book you talk about giving existence a meaning. How does one do that?

Accepting a project and rejecting others. In the philosophical perception I’m more of a negativist than a stater of things. Colleagues of mine and great authors like Perelman and Amartia Sen have devoted many pages to the idea of justice. Pages and very refined formulations by Sen and his school. However, in this world justice doesn’t exist. There are injustices. People have devoted many efforts to elaborating theories of justice and how to achieve it, about what it consists of. More or less we already know what it consists of. We know formally. But, at the time of truth, what there really is are injustices and many of them happen to people who have no voice to express the injustice that is done to them. I believe this negative perception is more fecund for thought and for action than the rather platonic or modelic -kantian, if you will- view about what’s good, what’s just.

When you talk about a project are you talking about a collective or an individual one?

In my case it’s a collective project, but for an artist it may be an individual one. These days I was thinking about the case of André Weil, Simone Weil’s brother. That man has been one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. Unlike her sister, when World War II started, he went to Finland and refused to go back to France to fight the Germans. He had to spend the rest of his life in the United States because in France that attitude of objecting to a war -which was defensive and, probably not unfair- wasn’t well considered. He was a mathematician and he knew he could contribute more to humanity as a mathematician than as a short-sighted person taken to the front to act as an artillery officer or something like that. In this case, the individual project was justified.

In the years you talk about and especially in the seventies, the project derived from the confidence in social transformation and improvement.

It’s hard for me to talk now about projects in the seventies, but part of what I believe now I already believed then. That is, the social transformation and improvement projects had failed. The model could not be a bureaucratic one that denied people their voice. It had to be, therefore, a project of democratic transformation, with all that implies, given the backward state in certain areas of society, which barely adapt to a democratic process of advancement. The model could have been something similar to the Nordic society, but more advanced and, above all, with the participation of the people. Towards 1975, to me it was clear there were no finished models, there would not be an end with a homeostatic model that reproduced itself for a long time. That couldn’t be.

In your memoirs you suggest that, when you saw certain behaviors, you stopped believing in the goodness of the human species.

Not so much. What I say is that I couldn’t believe in Rousseau’s noble savage. And I think I must stick to it. Human beings are predatory animals, capable of everything. Of creating Bach’s music and of performing the greatest massacres and injustices. We are all like that. If we are not, to put it some way, evil, it’s because we are educated not to be, because we try not to be. It’s the title of a song by Boris Vian, I haven’t come to this world to kill anybody. It’s a pretty good principle. Rousseau’s noble savage is inside the philosophy of Enlightenment, which is brutally individualistic and, above all, not historical. Rousseau has no idea how primitive societies were, how our historical ancestors were. We are lucky to know “fossil” societies which have remained until now or, at least, until the seventies. People who lived in similar conditions to those of our distant ancestors. We know how they lived and it wasn’t precisely in a society of noble savages. They were societies were sometimes conflicts were ritualized, but they were conflictive societies. The individual’s innate goodness is…

Is there a concept of human nature behind the idea of Law?

The Naturalistic thought I’ve been fighting my whole life. I had to suffer it as a student. And it reappears again and again in its formalistic version. For example, Adela Cortina. She allows herself to write articles with a Kantian Naturalistic view as if nothing had happened. As if what’s just and unjust, what’s good and evil, what law is, what obedience to law is, was clear. She doesn’t question any of it. It’s a kind of thinking that doesn’t realize the lack of foundation of our cultural beliefs. Our cultural beliefs are not based on anything solid. They’re not based on any Kantian principle, in any Platonic, abstract principle, in any general principle that says “you must do this and not that.” No, they are historical conventions which have become more and more established and, in certain sense, we could say that for good, as long as we don’t think about all the atrocities committed during the 20th century and which are starting to happen in the 21st. Our culture is conventional, historical. sociohistorical. There is no naturalism. Underneath it all, behind it all, there’s nothing natural we may aspired to go back to, nothing which may inspire us. I deeply believe in the lack of foundation of everything and in the historical conventionality of the different cultures. There are millions of Chinese people who don’t believe in God. The idea of God doesn’t inspire them at all, unlike what’s happened in western societies, not to mention the North-American puritans. Why? It’s a convention that has been formed historically, linked to solving everyday life problems, without going through many metaphysics. We have followed that line from the Catholic Kings on. All the European monarchs have tried to make religion a state matter.

But God is still a reference for conservative thought, apart from the proof of his existence.

People who state there are intangible and insensible things must bear the burden of proof. If not, we could admit the existence of sirens or gollos, which are charming -but unobservable- bugs, and which are everywhere. There are three or four here.

In your collective view, it seems you place some weight on the idea that happiness is not compatible with loneliness.

It’s difficult to even conceive a human without speech. And speech is dual. Speaking to oneself is impossible. We wouldn’t have language. We’ve been taught to speak, the same way we’ve been taught to stand upright and that’s a basic element: we live in a system which is much more social than we see. Language shows this sociability very clearly, this natural sociability of human beings. Now I said “natural.” Being in common, being able to talk depend on the others. We can see in another area, the area of morality. For example: one can be an honest engineer, a biochemist, who does research on the properties of certain bodies. She works, goes home, has an absolutely normal life. But the product of her job is integrated in a weapon system and that system, designed by other scientists, is finally used by the military, following the decision of some politicians who have decided to use this weapon systems against some poor peasants in, let’s say, Vietnam or Afghanistan. What happens is that, between the end -the weapon that kills the peasant- and the beginning, an absolutely honest research by someone, there’s a complicated labyrinth of entangled actions which, on top of everything, are artifactual. Because this scientist wouldn’t have been able to do her research without instruments designed by others. This means that, in our time and due to this really complex character of social life, moral responsibilities of actions are very difficult to follow. And one never knows if one may be instrumentalized in the future for some indecent action. This is one of the most noteworthy characteristics of the history of sociability in this society of ours. I developed this idea in my book Ciudadanos siervos, because it seems to me an important matter concerning morality. There are many actions that interact with others, with artifacts and, finally, where is responsibility? That which I did, which ended up that way, is my responsibility or not? Many things get diluted there.

This takes us to a question you pose in your memoirs: How to give a foundation to morality?

How to give a foundation to morality? With the aid of one’s own project. There is no more foundation than the way of conceiving living with others.

To what extent does that presuppose free will?

This is an absolutely murky area from which I don’t think I can come out victorious. If we start thinking about the determinations in our consciousness, it’s possible we may reach the conclusion there’s no free will. But I think it must exist. It’s a matter that worries me, but that I’ve never tried to solve. I would connect it, even though this may seem like quite a leap, with dreams. The free associations that happen in dreams. I am a person with absolutely no artistic talent. I can’t draw; I like sculpture but I’ve never been able to make anything that seemed praiseworthy; I like music, but I’m a listener, I can’t even play harmonica and I guess I wouldn’t be able to follow a drum rhythm either. However, in some dreams, I have seen an unpublished work of art, something that doesn’t exist, but wonderful. In the dream I myself was astonished and, after waking up, I still remembered. Some strange, Dalinian machine, kind of surrealistic, without any purpose, but very beautiful. How is it possible that, in my dream, with any determination, I or, better said, that brain I don’t control, am able to create something I cannot create in my conscious life? That is, we have latent capacities we don’t use, we don’t know how to use. And that points to the question of free will. We are probably very determined culturally, but we have more capacities than we believe. Therefore, we can probably be freer.

You started talking about the determinacies of consciousness. How is it defined? Or, if you prefer, how can we guarantee knowledge is objective, that there is a clear distinction between the self and the others?

Between the self and the others there’s a clear frontier: what you determine and what the others determine. That is clear. Somewhat related to this, I would escape the question saying something like this: what is the surest way we have of knowing things? Without a doubt, sciences. We know what they are, how they’re built, how they move forward. We have a great instrument of knowledge, with one particularity. Sciences do not deal with reality, but with abstractions of reality. We could call them models. Ultimately, abstract ideas of reality, but not reality itself. Every scientific branch is very powerful, but there are diverse scientific branches. Thus, for example, thanks to science one may build great nuclear plants which, from the Physics point of view, work very well. They have been built using technologies inspired in science. What happens with those plants? They are immerse in a world in which, from the economist’s point of view, they may be profitable or not (they are, most definitely, not profitable in the long run, since the residues will last for hundreds of years). Probably they are dangerous from the social psyche’s point of view. To what extent the existence of dangerous technologies influences our everyday terrors hasn’t been studied. What am I trying to say? That sciences are useful, but they are partial knowledge. And the world is specific and total. The aspiration to relate the results in the different sciences, which is sometimes called Systems Theory -an expression that seems ugly to me- and that in the 19th century was called dialectics: trying to be aware that the results of a science aren’t everything, that one has to see the relationships between the different sciences and the spaces between them. That aspiration is the one that produces a knowledge that trusts sciences less, not because they are epistemologically bad, but because they may be dangerous ontologically. For me, the problem of knowledge lies there: in knowing where the limits of science are, the consequences it has. That cannot solved with more science. It can be solved with a philosophical attitude of cautiousness, of analysis, of exploration.

This possibility of a global vision is denied by a great fraction of current thought.

I’m not trying to talk about a global construction, but about a less partial construction than that of each branch of science. There are branches of science that laypeople cannot follow at all. For example, astrophysics or the basic biological nucleus. The cell in its deeper research. There, all that can be done is establish mathematical theories: this one’s better for explaining certain phenomena, this one’s worse.

This overcoming of specific knowledge is what you tried to do in the field of Law.

In the field of Law what I’ve tried to do is, first, to overcome the two great ideologies of jurists: Naturalism and the spontaneous ideology of the practical jurist, which is positivism: there’s the lay, there’s what the court said, let’s stick to it and not get in trouble. I’ve tried to see Law both from the internal and external point of view, and I’ve tried to tie things up. If one looks at Law from an internal point of view, one has an essentially positivist view. If one looks at it from an external point of view, we find the most important Law is not the one that gets broken, the one that goes to court and feeds lawyers and other dubious people, but the Law that is obeyed. The Law that works. It’s the one with the greatest entity. Jurists find it very surprising when you tell them that the Law that matters isn’t theirs but the one that works, the one that doesn’t create conflicts, the one that doesn’t feed them. Secondly: you see the bureaucratic crust the legal activity has created. You can’t see it from inside. There’s a whole crust of notions without which a jurist is incapable of seeing. A jurist, when she’s studying 5th year in her degree, is already incapable of seeing unless it is through that tremendous ideological crust. I have tried to make those aspects visible. To see there’s an immense bureaucracy which is linked to the legal work. Lawyers, but also a state bureaucracy, a para-public bureaucracy. Mountains of people working for the Law. Here I’m setting myself appart from the official Marxist view, which sees Law as laws and not as ideas. No, no. There are also bureaucratic practices. It’s a view that, I think, is richer than the usual one.

You will also have faced the notion of freedom and its limits.

Yes, but here I’m very Kantian.

In what sense?

That every person’s freedom ends where the other person’s freedom starts.

Who determines that?

I guess each person. You could say the law is the law. But the law is made in such a way that civil disobedience is also justified.

This opens the conflict between morality and law.

Of course. It’s the subject of Antigona.

One could also rise the issue of veracity and meaning.

I don’t speak about that in the book because what I’m building is a story. In a story you omit many things. When you omit aspects of reality that may have been important for you but, in a certain way, irrelevant, the truth may be transformed. It’s a book in which there are a few little revenges, but in the literary sense, which gets nowhere. This is not a confession, it’s a narration and there’s a narrator and I have put myself between the subject which writes and the one that has a certain voice or voices when writing. There are jumps which must be taken into consideration, like in any novel. What’s important is knowing whether, despite the omissions of details, giving relevance to some facts and not to others, one has built a story which is faithful enough to what you think has been reality. That’s the problem of veracity. The problem of meaning is why write. Nobody writes for oneself. In this I agree with Bajtin: always write for someone else, even if you represent them as another you. There’s a tradition about which a lot of lies have been told, from the left and the right, to use the consecrated words. From up and down, to use more truthful ones. And I had to talk for the future.

What aspects of the Law are you still working on?

You have raised a series of subjects I hardly talk about. I’m more interested in questions such as: who has the power today? For example. Where is the power? Because, of course, you can vote whatever you want but, at the end, the politics will be exactly the same. Are we still living in a democracy or this is a disguised oligarchy? I believe we live in disguised oligarchies, even though people have rights. Which is a lot, it’s important. Especially the rights concerning freedom. But for other people social rights are more important, because in order to have an opinion you first need to have a full belly. One cannot rebel with an empty stomach. These are the subjects of political philosophy which keep me up at night and make me write a couple of lines.

Actually, we were considering how to know what we know is valid.

Trial and error. When we make a mistake, we say “sorry” and we back up.

There are neurologists that claim one learns more from mistakes than from good decisions.

Yes. I think we advance negatively. By eliminating false claims, more than discovering truth. My epistemological position as a scientist is that science moves forward by eliminating false claims. It says something is false and, when doing it, it implicitly says something else is true. But that which is stated implicitly can be rejected by someone else, because of such and such reasons. We move forward by eliminating false claims. And in our own personal life, we have moved forward by eliminating false claims. One after the other. We have become older by eliminating the notions that were transmitted by generations which learned in a historical context which was completely different to ours.

There’s resistance. For example, the creationists.

Yes, but sheltered by state laws and tradition. Creationism has the same problem as solipsism. If you say God created the world 6,000 years ago and, on top of that, he put fossils in the earth so that we would believe they were 300,000 years old, you are setting up a theory that, yes, is very hard to disprove, but it’s like a film people either buy or not. It seems dangerous to me but, especially, sad for the country where this is becoming strong, because it signals a great decadence in their spirit. In the same way that one sees in the history of our country the disgrace it was to expel the Moorish and Jewish, the patrimonial conception of the kings that employed the Spanish troops and America’s gold in enterprises for the Hapsburg dynasty, that had nothing to do with the needs of the people, of the Catalan or Castilian farmer, but that spent everything there and ruined a great empire. When you see things like Creationism in schools, one thinks that this society which had such a great impulse from the middle of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, is in decadence. If that propagates, it means it is in the middle of a great spiritual decadence.

What future awaits us?

We can expect for some peoples to eat more. In China, now, one billion more people are eating. I trust in Latin America things will go better, in Africa those terrible problems will end. We have the ecological problem before us, the substitution of oil. Everything goes so slow! In the seventies and eighties, our little group was completely aware of the ecological problem. And we were like apostles.

In Spain, the first studies came from your group, revolving around the magazine Mientras Tanto. Some authors didn’t come from the western consumer society, but from the Democratic German Republic.

Yes, and also in the Roma club and some Americans. The Carter report was very important. It was commissioned by the Carter presidency, it was called Global 2000. But it has taken the public powers so long to become aware of the problem! It’s been 30 years which could have been used. Everything goes so slow!

You said our system is more similar to a disguised oligarchy than to a democracy. Can this be changed?

The only way is more democratic power. We live in complex societies and democracy cannot exist without informed citizens. Education is important. The world of the Internet is a great thing and it’s being proven. But not only there. There’s a lot of information and people can access it outside curricular systems. It’s just beginning, because the immense majority of people cannot use a computers, we mustn’t fool ourselves, but I think good things may come this way, in years to come. Also, people today know that chopping heads off is useless, that what must be done is changing institutions. This is a great advancement. Seeing the people from the movement Democracia Real Ya (the Ya -now, in Spanish- is really powerful) with their pacifism is fantastic. Young people have been educated to not interrupt people who are talking. I still interrupt people. I should hit myself. To listen, to defend things without violence. 40, 50 years ago, in the study centers people didn’t work like that. And it’s a great thing. Despite the failure of the education system, there are things which are going extremely well. And that makes me really excited. I think it’s really interesting.

See this author’s biography.

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