Frans Vosman’s stance on care ethical critique

Editor Richard Brons reflects upon three critical notions supporting Frans Vosman’s arduous efforts to keep care ethics embedded in an indispensable tradition of social and existential criticism.

Unlike some of my co-editors, I did not have the pleasure to work with Frans Vosman long enough to get to know him very well, personally that is. Yet, by reading his texts and listening to the ‘mini-lectures’ he gave every so often during editorial meetings, I have come to appreciate him as one of the outstanding critical thinkers in the Dutch/Flemish philosophical lowlands.

My focus then, as a philosopher, is indeed on the philosophical merits of Frans Vosman, in particular with regard to his kinship with radical critical thinkers like Foucault and Lyotard. In this short blog, I will elaborate on Vosman’s strong affiliations with some key-notions of Lyotard, namely the ‘différend’ and ‘passibility’.

Please note that Vosman himself paid little explicit attention to these affinities – although in our conversations he was interested in Lyotard – whilst he made use of the notion ‘passibility’ himself, be it in a different connotation.

I will argue however, that Lyotard’s concept of différend is very much applicable to the vein of Vosman’s social and existential criticisms, and the same goes for Lyotard’s interpretation of passibility, which is on a par with Levinas’ idea of an ‘in-between activity and passivity’.

Furthermore, in linking Vosman’s insights about the political dimensions of care and care ethics to Foucault’s ideas of power, I will conclude with a few short remarks on the notion of paralogos, which is derived from Lyotard.

In my opinion, these three notions, of différend, passibility and paralogos might be of some help in a further understanding and continuation of Frans Vosman’s critical ethics of care. Even more important, for me at least, is Vosman’s contribution to a subtle deepening and nuancing of différend and paralogos in his own terms.

Différends – the seeds of systemic harm and injustice

Throughout his work Frans Vosman wrote and taught about those who are in need of care and support, but are not really heard and understood by experts who are supposed to give care and support, or who do research about how to give care and support.

To my mind, this is precisely what the French philosopher Lyotard called the différend, collision between lifeworlds of language, between what Wittgenstein named ‘language games’ with certain specific rules and stakes. Lyotard considered these ‘games’ not only involving certain rules and stakes, but also their own specific ‘worlds’ with distinctive meanings, references, and above all, their users understanding each other and having shared goals, interests and experiences.

In particular however, Lyotard’s différend is about these language discourses being deaf and dumb to voices and peculiarities outside their ‘bubbles’, resulting in harm and injustice when a powerful discourse does not or rather cannot listen to voices who are trying to express harm done to them by that discourse.

A few examples, harsh as they may be, but to make things clear: George Floyd whose ‘I can’t breathe’ could not be heard as something that mattered. Victims of sexual harassment before, but also still after MeToo. Examples of discourses of patriarchy blind and deaf to racism and to the feminine.

‘Différend’ implies both deaf- and blindness since a language discourse is a complete epistemological package, directing ways of seeing and feeling, both including and excluding parts of reality, i.e. what may count as visible, knowable, sensible, tangible.

It is my impression, that Frans Vosman has always put much effort in tracking down such différends, by analyzing and criticizing discourses of alleged care ethicist expertise of how to understand and approach unfortunate souls amidst so much overwhelming material and mental prosperity in western late-modernity. The language discourses at play are those of academia, constructing theories and implementing them into lifeworlds not experienced by the researchers themselves.

The following citation from Vosman’s The Disenchantment of Care-Ethics A Critical Cartography is very illuminating with respect to his affinity with a notion of différend:

“What is at stake here are the researchers and the objects of research, but also those things that do not depend on constructions of meaning. This last aspect ensures that we are still in the political realm (rather than in the “existential” or “metaphysical” realm). When it comes to voicing, there is silencing and self-restraint in speaking (because not speaking can be protective, avoiding the risk of being seized by third parties), but there is also radical inexpressibility. This, it seems to me, is of great epistemological importance for care ethics, and it is one of several arguments to ask whether the ethics of care should in fact be regarded as a constructivist theory at all” (italics by me).

Yet, how to approach critical care ethics in a respectful manner? If ever I could arrive at a proper understanding of Frans Vosman’s stance of critique, then maybe from two points of view.

Firstly, I was very happy with his article The necessity of critique of the critique. It struck me realizing how much further he had progressed from my Lyotard dissertation back in 1997. My final conclusion at the time was that Lyotard’s radical critique based on the différend, implied the inevitable self-destruction of every critique – after all, each critical text generates a différend by its own very excluding a counter-text, and so on.

Frans Vosman however, did not reside in texts only, on the contrary. He was a perceiver, who never stopped looking again, looking for the realities of experience which are excluded by standard idioms, by logos. A différend is the experience which cannot be articulated, especially not in discourses trying to colonize its ‘wasteland’.

Vosman’s considerable enriching of Lyotardian différend consists of a very relevant broadening of différend in relation to complex and always fluid mosaics of life-experiences typical of a certain life-world, hardly representable in the discourses of other life-worlds, such as those of academia.

So he listened to and looked at those he considered his fellow-survivors for as long as he could.

This brings me to the second point of view from which I hope to understand Frans Vosman better.

Passibility – a double edged notion, connecting Vosman and Lyotard once again

Lifeworlds of the care ethicist and the care-receiver are often very far apart, resulting in différends, not hearing and understanding each other. Attaching less importance and priority to language, to logos, but focussing more on attentiveness and embodied experience instead, trying to postpone judgements for as long as possible, is an attitude Lyotard had named passibility, reflectiveness in-between action and non-action. Lyotard derived this notion from Levinas.

Remarkably, there is another connotation, the one Frans Vosman uses, originating from Ricoeur. With Vosman and Ricoeur, passibility is an attitude of perseverance, Frans Vosman often alluded to as a way of life typical for ‘survivors’ who would  ‘carry-on’ no matter how harsh and impossible their social and economic conditions, hand in hand with corresponding states of health.

Interestingly, the two meanings of passibility, Vosman’s en Lyotard’s, have something in common, a common ground so to speak. At first glance, postponing one’s judgement in attentiveness and endure arduous life seem quite different, but in both cases one renounces ideals, immediate results and fulfillments, one does not resign and just ‘carries on’.
In both cases, to experience whatever happens is the main dish, and everything else is side issue, particularly constructing theories and relying on ideas and all kinds of ‘moralia’, i.e. prescriptions beforehand on what is good or bad to do or not to do.

According to science critics like Donald Schön and Harry Kunneman, professionals doing research or working in fields such as care, should develop an awareness of the distinction between moral high grounds of detached reflection and swampy lowlands of everday’s and everybody’s struggle with palpable problems and challenges, that do not resolve in thin air overnight, but are there to stay forever, continuously changing in different moulds of complexity.

‘Passibilities’ of Vosman and Lyotard merged together could result in a mode of critical reflection not merely postponing judgement, but leaving judgements behind (and with these all theories and fixed assumptions) and just staying put, right in the middle of the lifeworld one is supposed to be seeking connection to, undergoing the embodied experience of what it means to live in that world.

Passibility as a state of attentiveness not detached but closely connected to the lived experience of what it means to share and be part of a lifeform, is not predominantly embedded in logos, cognitive knowledge, but also part and parcel of what I prefer to call para-logos, beyond, next to, and ‘under’ cognitive language.

Paralogos: political dimensions from Foucault and Lyotard to Vosman

To Frans Vosman, the political dimensions of care are of the utmost importance. What people do or don’t do, their decisive preferences, fears and longings are in large part under the spell of social and political powers and influences.
These ‘dispositives’ are partly imbedded in language, but find their way also through other channels, next to or outside language. Différend and passibility for instance, happen outside or beyond mere language.
Différend is inexpressible injustice invoked by a dominant discourse, and passibility is an effort off all senses to be attentive and patient, and ‘see through the words’, marking not what people say but what they do or don’t do, ‘where the feet go’.

On a par with two other Dutch philosophers ((1)) I extended Lyotard’s notion of ‘paralogos’ ((2)) to the realm of the senses (percepton, feelings, embodied awareness) prior and next to cognitive language.
On the stages of paralogos, power, fear, desire and sometimes also compassion have the lead roles, not so much expressing themselves  in words, as in actions, gestures, mimicry.

To the benefit of care ethics, Foucault has developed important insights how power works in society, institutions, and organizations. His ‘dispositives of power’ are frames guiding our choices often involuntary, i.e. beyond or ‘below’ our cognitive awareness, independent of our ideas, beliefs and utterances. Read for instance co-editor Silke Jacobi’s blog on this website, The fragile voices from the work floor. Care-ethical power issues reconsidered.

Paralogos is the referential frame I use to connect the various criticisms Lyotard put in position against modernist epistemologies, in which cognitive language and supremacy of the individual rational subject prevailed.
I believe that the notion of ‘paralogos’ could also have some value to support and develop further Frans Vosman’s critical stance towards late-modernist conceptions of care ethics.

In his ‘critique of critique’, Vosman stresses the necessity of being very attentive to what Lyotard marked as différend, i.c. that any care-ethicist theory or construction is an intrusion in realms beyond theoretical and instrumental language, possibly doing harm and injustice to vulnerabilities and fluid existential nuances and valuables standard language can never keep up with.

To honor Frans Vosman, let’s do more para-logos, is my plea.

Here you can find other contributions of staff members about the intellectual legacy of Frans Vosman.


H. Oosterling, (1996) Dissertation ‘Moved by appearance Towards a hypercritique of xenophobic reason’ (only in Dutch)
R. Brons, (1997) Dissertation ‘Philosophy between the public and the speechless’ (only in Dutch)
H. Kunneman, (2017) ‘Amor complexitatis’ (only in Dutch)
D. Schön, (1983). The reflective practitioner. How professionals think in action Basic Books Inc, USA

(2) The term ‘paralogy’ first appears in Lyotard’s La condition postmoderne, (1979) in the last two chapters where a design for a ‘postmodern science’ is sketched. There, according to him, it literally means a mental disorder or insanity, but he presents it in that context as a disruption of the cohesion, the rules, the standard progression of a rule-controlled language game, such as that of science. However, this disturbance can have an innovative effect in the sense that the discourse in question is led to adjust or change its rules.

Photo on top JackieLou DL via Pixabay


About the author: Richard Brons

Richard Brons

Richard Brons (1950) graduated in philosophy and literary studies at University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam (NL). At the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL), he completed a NWO PhD research on J.F Lyotard's ethics of Differend, about the injustice of speechlessness. Since 2012, he is responsible for the final editing of Waardenwerk Magazine, a continuation of the Journal of Humanistic Studies. Currently he is interested in confronting postmodern critical voices of male protagoniists like Lyotard and Foucault with the different voices of feminists like Gilligan, Benjamin and Butler.

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