According to Cornelis Verhoeven, a Dutch philosopher, action-orientation is the belief in the necessity of activity alongside the rejection of passivity. Action oriented people believe that it is better to do something than wait passively for action to emerge from a given situation. Loafing is regarded by these ‘activistische ideologen en moralisten’ (activist ideologues and moralists) as almost criminal behaviour.

Action oriented people can even get angry when they see loafing in others.

Verhoeven believes people caught in action-orienation feel they can always succeed through action. There is nothing that seems to challenge humans more than their incapacity to act; such things as watching TV, playing games or just hanging around are seen mostly as bad habits. Our world today assumes we should always be ‘doing’ something useful.

We have come to consider focus and action as “good,” and idleness or loafing as “bad” or unproductive.

It is mostly true that we tend to feel guilty if we spend time doing nothing. In turn, Verhoeven sees action oriented people as blasé, as wanting to deny the value of any delay between wonderment and answer. He writes about the value of wonderment and about ‘the art of just watching’. Action orientation prefers a quick solution, even when it entails doing violence or forcing a given situation, above patience and emergence as an approach to life. Yet, ‘the word is very important, it is a delay between thought an action’. We should, therefore, take time with words as these are a ‘middle position between thought and action’.

He talks about the importance of ‘just considering’ and ‘just watching’.

Design by @mdvfunes CCBY
Design by @mdvfunes  Licensed CCBY

Verhoeven writes that as a philosopher he does not want to change the world; considering and watching is not only the opposite of action orientation. It is not the kind of watching of a person driving a car, for example, nor is it leering or spying.

Just watching, as understood by Verhoeven, has no other purpose than itself. It is an act free of purpose, never a productive force.

He talks about his approach as a “philosophy of the seventh day” – understood in the traditional way as the day we do not work.

Although Verhoeven has no lack of official recognition of his talent in his country of origin, he remained largely unknown to the general public during his life.

May be because his philosophy did not fit with our modern action-orientated ethos? Perhaps our world has little vocabulary left for what counts but cannot be counted and no time left to just watch without a purpose.

Watch an interview with Cornelis Verhoeven after he’d won the P.C. Hooftprice for literature and was interviewed by somebody who had never heard of him.

3 thoughts on “The art of just watching

  1. I love this. Being still and watching is so important. We all need to stop, but I suspect we all are a combination of both – action, and passive. What a wonderful interview with Cornelis who dutifully outstripped the daft interviewer.

    1. My reading of him is that he critiques those who value action orientation above all else and a society that now offers a stark value judgement: Action = good and inaction= bad even when action will cause harm. I don’t read him as talking about our psychology, but I know very little about him and so much is not translated. It has been fascinating to learn about him with Jaap. Thanks for stopping by, Viv.

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