In pursuit of beauty

BEAUTY, they say, is in the eye of the beholder – although it’s probably more accurate to say it’s in the visual cortex of the beholder, but that’s a subject for a future blog. However, beauty performs many other functions. An elegantly stroked cover drive for four in cricket is somehow valued more than the hack over cow corner with the same result. The same is true for all sports. In maths the search always seems to be for the elegant solution to a problem. If it isn’t beautiful then the concern is that there must be something wrong with the solution. And as physicist Brian Greene claims, the universe itself is elegant – or at least it will be if string theory turns out to be correct. In ancient Greek philosophy Plato’s Theory of Forms is beautiful in its sheer simplicity. Beauty is often seen to be good, even if some artists try to undermine that concept, but is it morally good? Well, that’s the claim made by Heather Widdows in her new book Perfect Me.

International Pakistani batsman Babar Azam executes the perfect cover drive

In this book Widdows argues that the ‘beauty ideal is increasingly presenting itself as and functioning as an ethical ideal for very many people’. There is, she claims, a ‘duty to be beautiful’ and for those who ‘fall under it the beauty ideal provides a value framework against which individuals judge themselves, and others, as being good and bad’. And she continues: “As such, the beauty ideal is functioning for some, as their overarching moral framework, to which they must conform to think well of themselves irrespective of, and in addition to, other metrics by which they judge themselves.”

This heady stuff and she could easily be accused of ignoring the harm that the beauty ideal can do, if were not for the fact that Widdows recognises this problem and confronts it head on. “I do not mean to underplay the extreme harms that attach to a dominant and demanding beauty ideal. The harms to individuals who engage, individuals who do not engage, and to us all are extensive and devastating,” she writes, but adds that ‘to simply tell women not to engage is unrealistic and ineffective, and, as I will argue, profoundly unethical’. However, she adds: “How we look should not be, as increasingly it is, our very selves.”

Widdows makes the point early on in the book that beauty has long been associated with morality and refers to Plato for whom ‘beauty is the only spiritual thing we have by instinct, by nature, and it is love of beauty that sets us on the moral path towards goodness and moral virtue’. In contrast in many traditional stories and fairy tales ugliness and evil are considered to be one and the same – think of the ugly sisters in Cinderella. And the contrast also plays a significant role in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. For some, Widdows argues, beauty is the ideal to work towards for and in itself, while for others it may also be a ‘means to other goods, and some may not value beauty at all’.

Widdows spends a considerable amount of time defining what is meant by beauty in the modern context but what it means essentially is that we ‘are good when we have resisted bad food…and eaten healthily’…while ‘not engaging in beauty activity is not merely a prudential failure, an aesthetic failure, or failure to conform to some social norm…but a moral failure’. However, Widdows does not herself ‘endorse beauty as an ethical ideal’ but rather that we ‘should recognise what is happening and part of this is an ethical turn’.

What are we to make of this argument? It may come as a shock to those of us who do not put much stock by beauty that we are not seen as being moral as others who do. But this isn’t really what Widdows is saying. So what is she saying? This is actually quite difficult to determine because although at best this book contains some subtle and nuanced arguments, at worst it can be quite confusing and muddled. But it seems to be that even if the beauty ideal fails as a moral ideal for some, we should at least acknowledge that for others it is. In that context she writes: “While it is the case that beauty matters more, it matters as well as and not instead of all the other qualifications, skills, and achievements necessary for success.” And: “If we carry on regardless, ever more isolated in our quest for the perfect me, the future will be bleak indeed.”

Is beauty really an ethical ideal rather than a delusion? One of the many problems with this assertion is that it only seems to be an ethical ideal for those who are or value beauty and it only them for whom beauty is a an ethical value, which is horribly circular and has no meaningful throughput. Indeed it is this circularity that circles infuriatingly throughout the book. Another major problem is that one cannot help feel that Widdows has simply committed a category error by conflating the sense of feeling good when we seek beauty with actually being good and surely these are not the same at all.

A moral egoist is not troubled by altruism

Further, valuing one’s own beauty, or at least seeking it for oneself, is an extraordinarily self-centred, egoistic activity that excludes other-regarding activities captured in the altruistic ideal. As such, for some at least, it doesn’t qualify as a moral ideal at all and those that think it does are merely deluded. However, it should be added that moral egoists might disagree!


The myth of the Social Contract

Social atomization

IT is a common observation, though no less powerful for being so, that we live in an atomized society where the individual rules supreme and the collective is dead. As Margaret Thatcher once said there is no such thing as society, or words to that effect. The key philosophical definition is provided by methodological individualism in which, as Steven Lukes writes in Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy, asserts that ‘all attempts to explain social (or individual) phenomena are to be rejected…unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about individuals’. It was this fundamental principle that was seized on by the likes of Hayek and the philosopher Robert Nozick and eventually entered the political arena with what is commonly called neoliberalism. But as Lukes points out it is an ‘exclusivist, prescriptive doctrine about what explanations are to look like’ and ‘excludes explanations which appeal to social forces, structural features of society’ and ‘institutional features’.

The MI position is anathema to communitarian (which is not the same as communism of course) philosophers like Michael Sandel for whom it expressly excludes people for whom a sense of belonging to a community is constitutive of who they take themselves to be. And in the German Ideology Marx wrote: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men – the language of real life.” But note those words ‘at first’ because Marx continues to make the claim that autonomous individuals cannot happen ‘as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity’. It should also be noted that in her magnum opus The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt argued that atomized societies in which communal networks are shattered are prime breeding grounds for dictators like Hitler and Stalin.

It is relatively easy to see how the Big State versus Small State fits into this philosophical dialogue and it is into this explosive arena that the economist Minouche Shafik dips her toe into what, is has to be said, are very shallow waters indeed with her book What We Owe Each Other.

For her the fundamental aspect is what she calls the ‘social contract’, apparently unaware that this device is in itself an expression of political liberalism ranging from the thoughts of Thomas Hobbes through John Locke and Jean Jacque Rousseau to John Rawls in the 20th century with his Original Position. The social contract is a device for more socially minded liberals to bridge the gap between the fundamental political unit of the individual on the one hand and society on the other. But, as Sandel has pointed out many times, this expressly excludes a communitarian approach to society so constantly fails to build the bridge.

So, Shafik’s discourse is riddled with her underlying and unacknowledged liberalism. As an example she rejects the concept of Universal Basic Income mainly because the recent experiment in Finland failed to ‘help people find work by giving them support to learn new skills or start a new business’. After two years, she notes, the ‘evidence showed no impact on employment – participants were neither more of less likely to find a job than someone on unemployment benefit’.

A common view about UBI but does the evidence back it up?

She seems to be blissfully unaware, as indeed did the Finnish government, that UBIs are not designed to be job creation devices but to create stability in people’s lives and help to address inequality. What it did show, as the more socially minded Ed Miliband points out Go Big, that it does not necessarily result in people dropping out of the jobs market, thus countering a common concern about about UBIs.

Instead Shafik argues that targeted benefits are a better option without apparently understanding that it is precisely this system that has become so unwieldy and punitive in today’s splintered workforce. She argues that the ’empowerment of workers can be achieved through better minimum wages, benefits, unions and retraining programmes, without, again, understanding that unions struggle to survive and recruit in an atomized society. She also seems to be unaware that the work ethic is itself a problem in a society where so much is likely to taken over by artificial intelligence leaving humans to do pointless jobs or, as David Graeber put it, bullshit jobs just to maintain the culture of work for work’s sake

Compare all this with the much more profound problem posed by Sandel in The Moral Limits of Markets when he argues that we have drifted from a market economy to a market society and asks ‘how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?’ And: “Not only has the gap between rich and poor widened, the commodification of everything has sharpened the sting of inequality by making money matter more.”

Ultimately Shafik is unable to extricate herself from her establishment positions and high-ranking roles in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England and bases her entire argument on the myth of the social contract that exists only in the minds of political philosophers. She seem to be unaware, also, of the work of Wilkinson and Picket in The Spirit Level and the Inner Level in which they identify inequality, rather than poverty as such, as the main cause of various social ills for everyone – rich and poor. (It should be noted here that both these books have come under severe criticism of late, which will be the subject of a future blog). There is no mention of inequality in the index of her book and, as such, this means that there is a black hole at the heart of the book in addition to her failure to acknowledge her own political and philosophical foundations and undue reliance on the myth of the social contract.


Disobey – and take charge!

SOME argue that we are living in a spectator society – one in which, if people take any interest in society, politics and democracy, they do so from the side-lines. Reality TV sums all this up – and perhaps Gogglebox is its perfect manifestation with us, the viewer, watching other people watching TV. The argument goes that in our consumerist society most people are happy to acquiesce in life as a spectator sport. If true, then this is truly Kafkaesque as people willingly contribute to their own obsolescence.

The philosopher Frederic Gros, however, will have none of this as he explores the history of disobedience and claims that philosophy is, or at least should be disobedient and urges us to refuse to accept the obvious or to acquiesce in anything. In short, he urges us to disobey and take political responsibility – to take back control.

In his appropriately named Disobey, Gros writes that he wants to ‘present the problem of disobedience from the ethics of politics’. Here he acknowledges how difficult it must be for the poverty stricken to fight for themselves ‘while an indecent elite can earn in a few days what they never save up in a lifetime’. It is in this context that there is a tendency to believe the myth that these ‘social inequalities are natural’, a view perpetuated by the super-rich clique because ‘disobedience amounts to anarchy’.

It is in the early stages of the book that Gros starts to get really interesting when he refers to what he calls ‘surplus obedience’ in which people ‘commit to their own submission with energy and desire’.

Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment

This willingness to obey was demonstrated in Stanley Milgram’s classic, if controversial, experiment in the 1960s during which ordinary people from all walks of life were instructed to inflict what they wrongly believed to be steadily increasing electric shocks on ‘learners’ up to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. Although Gros doesn’t refer to this infamous experiment, he does argue that ‘what must be resisted is not power in its established forms, but above all our own desire to obey, our adoration of the leader because it is precisely this desire, this adoration, that gives him his hold’. Before we gain the power to effect the change that Matthew Bolton advocates in his How to Resist, we first need to learn how to disobey. As Gros writes: “To be free essentially means wanting to be free.” And disobedience leads to what Gros calls the ‘right of resistance…a right recognised for people when the laws fail to fulfil their initial purpose: to build concord and work for the utility of all’.

For Gros, obedience to authority is not a given because the citizen always has the ability to take the responsibility implicit in disobedience and, in doing so, truly taking back control. “Rather than individual positions expressed by way of voting slips politely slipped into the ballot box – which we are told is the kernel of democracy – it is a matter of returning to the living essence of the contract: we make the body of society by disobeying collectively.”

At the core of Gros’s position is what he calls the ‘non-delegable subject’, reminiscent of existentialism, which is ‘now threatened by individualism, relativism or subjectivism’. This because the ‘non-delegable point in each of us is precisely the principle of humanity, the demand of a universal’.

The Enlightenment has come in for considerable criticism in recent years for supposedly privileging cold reason over emotion, although this blog has repeatedly stressed the over-simplification of this view. Interestingly, Gros defines the Enlightenment in the sense that Immanuel Kant did as a kind of coming of age for humanity or ‘the capacity of emancipation, independence, autonomy’ or the ‘capacity of dissension. From this Gros develops his theory of taking responsibility through dissent: “Enlightenment = coming of age = critical judgement = examination = care of self = thought.”

Another powerful, and related claim of Gros is that it is not obedience that is the characteristic of responsibility – but disobedience. But there is a problem here as well to the extent that the individual that takes on this responsibility feels a ‘burden weighing on my shoulders’.

Gros responds to this problem by acknowledging that it is ‘impossible to stand for too long in the ethical fire of the subject responsible for everything, without being driven mad’. Nevertheless, this responsibility can act as an ideal or, as he puts it, a ‘necessary provocation’.

All this seems to be far from where we started – watching people watching TV, and it seems inconceivable that our love of obedience can be broke by Gros’s erudition. But as always with political philosophy it is possible to break his thought down into manageable chunks when, for example, he writes that ‘to think is to disobey’ and to stop becoming ‘traitors to ourselves’. And maybe in discovering the ‘politics of disobedience’ we may cause the rich and powerful to quake in their boots!


Land ownership and tax

Was the Roman slave market the origin of our sense of ownership?

DOES it make sense to say that anyone owns land? Ever since the times of the Roman Empire we have had a notion of ownership in terms of absolute dominion over property. But as the late David Graeber wrote in Debt: The First 5,000 Years this idea is ‘really derived from slavery’. “One can imagine property not as a relation between people but as relation between a person and a thing, if one’s starting point is a relation between two people, one of whom is also a thing.” This is how the Romans saw slavery and, according to Graeber, it’s also the origin of the word dominion ‘meaning absolute private property’. In contrast to this view Graeber argues that a better definition of ownership is not ‘really a relation between a person and a thing’ but an ‘understanding or arrangement between people concerning things’ in which we refrain from interfering with one and other’s things.

It is somewhat ironic in these circumstances that what we call ‘landowning’ in the UK actually in law means only that the ‘landowner’ holds land in estate. Absolute possession rests with the Crown. It then becomes relatively easy to imagine this property being socialized, even though this would be, to say the least, politically controversial.

However, there is an alternative approach that does not argue for socializing land but taxing it. In his 2015 book Land Martin Adams argues that the ‘value of land is best shared, and that when we profit from land we profit from society’. This was also the argument used by Henry George in his seminal 1879 book Progress and Poverty. It was written as a way of undermining the Social Darwinism of thinkers like Herbert Spencer which provided the ideological underpinning for the reducing the tax burden on the rich by shifting it on to the poor and the middle classes.

George denied the theory of natural superiority, which also justified the eugenics movement, and argued that economic inequality emerged out of allowing a few people to monopolize natural opportunities and denying them to the rest of society.

For some this would lead them to argue for land nationalisation. But not George: “Recognising the common right to land does not require any shock or dispossession. It can be reached by the simple and easy method of taxing only land values.”, he writes. This, he claimed, would ‘make possible a higher and nobler civilization’. Some of his observations still have a shock resonance with us today: “So long as the increased wealth that progress brings goes to building great fortunes and increasing luxury, progress is not real. When the contrast between the haves and the have-nots grows ever sharper, progress cannot be permanent.” As a matter of interest, George reverts to the labour theory of value proposed by Adam Smith and Karl Marx as opposed to the circular argument identified by Mariana Mazzucato in The Value of Everything in which ‘finance is valued because it is valued, and its extraordinary profits is proof of that value’, which conveniently side-steps the value imparted by the labour and leads to valuing wealth extraction equally with wealth creation.

It is also interesting to note that George identifies the shift from the notion of land being common property in ancient times to one of absolute or exclusive ownership in Roman law. As we have seen his critique of land ownership does not lead him to ‘abolishing titles and declare all land public property’ but to ‘abolish all taxes – except on land values’. George writes that the policy would reduce inequality by distributing one part of the proceeds to ‘individual producers – as wages and interest’ and the other to the ‘community as a whole’. Perhaps somewhat optimistically, George thinks ‘it would become possible to realize the goals of socialism without coercion’.

George addresses many of the objections that are likely to arise against his proposals including the sort of objections raised against Universal Basic Income, particularly the claim that without poverty people would become idle and that ‘labor must be driven, driven with the lash’, while the idle rich simply need to be given more incentives with what has been called corporate welfare. George writes: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Want may be banished but desire would remain.” Humans may only be animals but we are the ‘unsatisfied animal. Every step we take kindles new desires’.

It is easy to read George with a world-weary cynicism – after all we’ve been here before and will be here again and again. We may continue to rail against the same injustices that George railed against only to be frustrated by the forces of reaction.

The forces of reaction continue to frustrate progressives.

But who can deny the force of his argument? “We cannot permit people to vote, then force them to beg. We cannot go on educating them, then refuse them the right to earn a living.” The forces of progress may seem weak at times but George reminds us that we cannot give up the fight.


The myths that justify inequality

HOW did it come to this? “In 1971 Britain was among the most equal societies on earth in terms of both household income and wealth. Today we are one of the most unequal.” So writes Robert Verkaik in Why You Won’t Get Rich. For him it is largely the result of government decisions. For, as Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote – the UK government had inflicted ‘great misery’ on its people with ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous austerity driven by social engineering rather than economic necessity’. Needless to say that in some quarters he was vilified for his observations.

How did this happen and why do we allow it to persist? Well part of the reason must be that the machinations of the super-rich and their wealth extracting activities are cloaked in secrecy. It takes a dedicated academic at York University to inform us that more than £150 billion is handed to out in ‘corporate welfare’ every year directly or indirectly. Dr Kevin Farnsworth, of the university’s department of social policy and social work estimates that subsidies, capital grants, tax benefits, insurance and advocacy as well as transport, energy and procurement subsidies to be worth about £93 billion a year. He suggests that indirect benefits, including wage subsidies, education and public health care are worth £52 billion while the annual legacy of the 2008 bank bailouts and other crisis measures add a further £35 billion.

Secrecy conceals more than £150 billion in corporate welfare

In contrast every penny is accounted for in welfare payments and according to the government’s own statistics the net rate of loss from overpayments in 2019 to 2020 was 1.9%, or £3.6 billion. This has increased from the 2018 to 2019 rate of 1.5% (£2.8 billion). But it is the obscurity of the source of wealth for the super-rich, combined with the political apathy, or wilful ignorance, that is encouraged in certain corners of the establishment that helps to explain why the process of impoverishment continues. In our consumer society many people are content to be spectators in our government processes rather than engage with it.

Throughout the last decade or so there has also been the apparent paradox of high employment and high poverty. Verkaik argues that the reason for this is twofold – 1) a ‘decade of cuts in benefits directed by policies of austerity’. And 2) the ‘insecure nature of new kinds of low paid work’. This phenomenon was explained in detail by the late David Graeber in his Bullshit Jobs.

Meanwhile, one of the most astonishing aspects of modern life is the complete misrepresentation of the City as the paradigm of wealth creation, competence and probity, which somehow gets conflated with the view that the City enriches us all. The main problem with this view is that it is almost completely untrue. As Verkaik points out the ‘only people getting rich in the City are the people working there’. And as one client wryly observes of one institution: “It took my three years to realise why the partners were the only ones driving the expensive cars.”

Casino Capitalism

Casino Capitalism is an apt description because most people who make money in the City are just, well, lucky. Verkaik writes: “There are plenty of studies to show that a portfolio of randomly stocks can perform as well as a carefully assembled one.” And because the City doesn’t actually produce anything, apart from more money, it has to keep finding ways of creating – or increasingly extracting – wealth from the rest of us. “Every penny the City makes is paid for by people working outside the financial sector,” writes Verkaik and, amazingly, the ‘value of trade in foreign exchange alone is 100 times the value of world trade in stocks and services’. And so it goes on: “The stock market is no longer a means of putting money into companies but a means of getting it out.” All this is regarded as wealth creation because of a shift from the objective definition of value as expressed in terms of land or labour to a subjective definition in which ‘price is a direct measure of value’ as Mariana Mazzucato explains in The Value of Everything.

So, what is Verkaik ‘s answer to all this? Well, he has a three-pronged approach. The first is to have a ‘more efficient and progressive tax system’. The second is our old friend a Universal Basic Income. And the third is a ‘New Green Deal to create more sustainable jobs while also contributing the the arrest of climate change’.

Interestingly, Verkaik tackles the criticism of the ruling political clique that poor people need to be made to work or else they will just get drunk and laze about, while the rich, of course, just need more incentives to work.

Are we all just lazy unless made to work?

“When Canada paid a community in Manitoba a free wage in the 1970s everybody benefited,” writes Verkaik – and other evidence suggests that most people who have received a UBI have continued to contribute to society in one way or another. And: “A Universal Basic Income allows everybody to choose how they want to get rich, whether through the capitalist system or other less directly profitable activity.”

Of course, Verkaik is not alone in prescribing these solutions to the problem of wealth and power inequality. The problem comes when you try to create a groundswell of support among citizens when they are already turned off from politics and democratic decision-making processes. This why Salisbury Democracy Alliance is so keen to establish a Citizens’ Jury in the city as a small step towards engaging more citizens. But these on their own are not enough and a future blog will look at ways of engaging people and encouraging them to run their own campaigns for change.


When philosophers screw up!

IT’S almost a law of nature that great thinkers will be traduced by lesser thinkers. Think of Marx and Adam Smith and Schopenhauer and, well, almost every philosopher! But what happens when a great thinker is grossly misunderstood by other great thinkers? There was one extraordinary and original philosopher who’s thought was so thoroughly misunderstood that it led to a schism in philosophy itself.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

That philosopher is none other than the enigmatic Ludwig Wittgenstein and his equally enigmatic book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Written in epigrammatic form, this remarkable book has probably led to more misunderstandings than any other in the philosophical canon. It is full of startling phrases like the ‘world is all that is the case’ or ‘what can be shown, cannot be said’ and, famously, right at the end ‘what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.

What Wittgenstein meant by all this was that pretty much everything that matters in life, including ethics, we must remain silent about. But there was a group of philosophers who catastrophically misunderstood him and believed that what he really meant was the exact opposite – that what we can speak about is all that matters. In his Confessions of a Philosopher Bryan Magee writes that this misunderstanding is all the more remarkable because Wittgenstein himself made it clear that ‘ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental’.

The group of thinkers – whose philosophical ponderings are described as logical positivism – that blundered into this mistake came to be known as the Vienna Circle and included such luminaries as Robert Carnap and A. J. Ayer. They came up with the Verifiable Principle, which states that only assertions that are in principle verifiable by observations or experience can have meaning. As Magee writes: “Assertions that there could be no imaginable way of verifying must either be analytic or meaningless’. And ‘all discoverable truths about the world were discovered by the methods of science’.

According to Wolfram Ellenberger in Time of the Magicians however: “In Wittgenstein’s view, philosophy was not akin to legal writing, and neither was it intellectual enquiry: in fact, it wasn’t a teachable or thematically definitive science. But these were the precise convictions that lay at the heart of the Vienna Circle.” Amusingly, Ellenberger describes the situation as being akin to a tug-of-war with the Vienna Circle on the one hand asserting that the meaning of an assertion lies in the method of its verification ‘while a famously indefatigable Wittgenstein held his ground at the other end of the rope with Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard, waiting for the whole positivist troop to collapse’.

Ellenberger regards this situation as being ‘one of the strangest misunderstandings, not without its comical side, in the history of philosophy’. But there were some serious consequences of this misunderstanding in that two tribes formed – analytical philosophy and continental philosophy which are ‘dedicated to levelling mutual accusations at each other’, thus contributing to the distrust between the continental tradition and the analytical Anglo-Saxons – although it’s probably a bit of a stretch to say that it also fed into Brexit.

As it happens Wittgenstein is also allied by Ellenberger with three other great idiosyncratic thinkers – Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer who, he argues, from 1919 to the emergence of National Socialism remade philosophy. According to Ellenberger, Cassirer wanted us to ‘cast off your anxiety as creative cultural beings, liberate your original constraints and limitations’. Heidegger, meanwhile, urged us to cast off ‘culture as a rotten aspect of your essence, and sink on the groundlessly thrown beings that you are, each in your own way, back into the truly liberating origin of your experience: Nothing and anxiety’. And just as Wittgenstein claimed that a ‘picture is a model of reality’ so Benjamin used the ‘thought picture’ as a ‘tool in order in order to see the world correctly’.

If all this sounds a little esoteric it is nevertheless an object lesson in how even the mightiest intellects can get things horribly wrong – how tribes and echo chambers can evolve in any field and how the highly educated can be just as bias as the rest of us, even if they may be able to express themselves more eloquently. Although to be fair to Ayer he later quipped that ‘the most important’ defect of logical positivism ‘was that nearly all of it was false’.


Out of sight out of (your) mind?

WHEN did mental illness become a stigma, something to hide away – even punish? There was a time when the intellectually challenged member of the village was tolerated. But that’s a far cry from the horror stories we read about in the 19th century and the condition that inmates had to endure in Bedlam. Even in the 20th century we had the terror of Electric Shock Treatment so well exposed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, and to the barbarism of lobotomies. Thankfully, things are a little more enlightened these days. However, as Dr Peter Kinderman writes in The New Laws of Psychology we still need a ‘wholesale revision of the way we think about psychological distress’. And he adds: “We should start by acknowledging that such distress is a normal, not abnormal, part of human life – that we humans respond to distressing circumstances by becoming distressed.”

So, it appears that there is still a long way to go. But it wasn’t always like this and we only have to recall Erasmus and his metaphor of the Ship of Fools in Praise of Folly to demonstrate this: “Then perhaps we shouldn’t overlook that folly finds favour in heaven because she alone is granted forgiveness of sins whereas the wise man receives no pardon.” (Of course folly is female and the wise male!). Then, of course, we have Dostoevsky’s ‘positively beautiful man’ who clashes with the emptiness of his society in The Idiot. And let us not forget the ingenious gentleman himself Don Quixote.

For Michel Foucault in his Madness and Civilization the last part of Erasmus’s tilt at the theologies and churchmen of his day is ‘constructed on the model of a long dance of madmen’. In this extraordinary book Foucault asks what it means to be mad and traces its history from the 1500 when insanity was considered part of everyday life, to a point when such people came to be seen as a threat and were locked away out of sight and out of mind. “Heavens above doesn’t the happiest group of people comprise those popularly called idiots, fools, nitwits, simpletons, all splendid names according to my way of thinking?” he writes.

According to Foucault it was the classical age that resolved to ‘silence the madness whose voices the Renaissance had just liberated’. He even identifies the moment in the 17th century when confinement became the defining element of mental disorder and combines with a ‘condemnation if idleness’. It was, claims Foucault, the royal edict of 27 April 1656 that ‘led to the creation of the Hopital General’ which set itself the task of preventing ‘mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorder’, thus replacing leprosy as the great Other to be shunned and locked away. In this way work took on its ‘ethical meaning: since sloth had become the absolute form of rebellion, the idle would be forced to work in the endless leisure of a labour without utility or profit’.

Hence the pointless treadmill seen in 19th century prisons and here too is the start of equating poverty not with lack of resources but with idleness or the ‘weakening of discipline and the relaxation of moral’. We might also point to the late David Graeber and his identification of bullshit jobs in our own day – there just to provide work for the sake of working.

So it came to pass that where once madness and unreason ‘floundered about in broad daylight’ in less than a century it has been ‘sequestered and, in the fortress of confinement, bound to Reason, to the rules of morality and their monotonous nights’. Here we have a full frontal assault by Foucault on the Enlightenment or, as he calls it, the ‘age of reason’ which ‘confined the debauched, spendthrift fathers, prodigal sons, blasphemers…libertines’. It should be pointed out, of course, that the Enlightenment is often mis-portrayed as simply privileging Reason over all else, whereas many Enlightenment thinks were motivated by an acknowledgement that humans were often really rather irrational and it might be a good idea to introduce a little more Reason and a little less superstition. It’s interesting that Kant thought the Enlightenment was a like a coming of age for humanity. Nevertheless, this mis-characterization does not blunt Foucault’s main argument that the Lords of Misrule have been unjustly cut off from society and that too much emphasis can be placed on Reason to the detriment of our mad creativity. The mentally distressed were not seen as having any use except as a spectacle – and as late as 1815, for example, the ‘hospital of Bethlehem exhibited lunatics for a penny every Sunday’. And again: “Madness had become a thing to look at: no longer a monster inside oneself but an animal with strange mechanisms, a bestiality.”

Madness and Civilization is a paean to Unreason and the role it plays in human affairs. But Foucault is not alone. Nietzsche privileged the wild abandon of Dionysius over the cool rationality of Apollo and the former, it seems, has been dominant ever since. Nevertheless, it is possible to go to the other extreme – to over objectify and place too much emphasis on Reason. This was a problem explored by Iain McGilchrist in his classic The Master and His Emissary (which featured in a previous blog) in which he argues that the alienation and abstraction of the left hemisphere of the brain is seen in some circles as being superior to the worldly engagement of the right hemisphere. The answer seems to be not that we should privilege one side over the other but that we should try to unite the two. As McGilchrist writes: “Ultimately, what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent whole.”


The truth about truth!

IF, as we saw a couple of blogs ago, reason has taken something of a battering, then the same is true of the very notion of ‘truth’. Therein lies part of the problem, of course. For it is self-contradictory to proclaim that there is no such thing as ‘truth’ because, of course, the proposition ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is in itself either true or not true. Another problem is that if that is all that counts as truth, then we are in danger of disappearing in a puff of our own logic, as Douglas Adams might have said.

We have seen on this blog how Frances Bacon compared truth to climbing a hilltop and Tim Harford in How to Make the World Add Up provided us with 10 rules for navigating the dense thickets of statistics that shape, and, it has to be said, misshape our world. But Harford assumes that there is such a thing as truth. Enter Simon Blackburn and his book called simply Truth.

Our old friend – the Mountain of Truth

Of course, Blackburn makes the point that the ‘god of truth’ is best served by the attendant deities such as reason, justification and objectivity. But what exactly is truth? Well, in his book he takes us through the classical approaches to understanding truth and then applies them to difficult problems like ethics and aesthetics.

In the first instance he adumbrates the correspondence theory, which states that in the same way that a map, in order to be useful, should correspond with what is on the ground, so a justified true belief should, at the very least, correspond with the facts. The problem here is that this may simply be an elaborate way of saying ‘true’ so that that saying ‘true’ and ‘corresponds with the facts’ is a distinction without a difference.

One may draw an analogy within, say, ‘baby swan’ and ‘cygnet’. Nevertheless, recent events have shown us that simply aligning ‘truth’ and ‘corresponding with the facts’ is important when the likes of Trump and Putin do their level best to decouple them. The theory, of course, also assumes that the sense-perception process passively receives facts from the world rather than interacting with the world and, in some sense, constructing a model of the world that isn’t straight-forwardly out there. At its most extreme Kant and Schopenhauer hold that the ‘thing-in-itself’ or the ‘Will’, the world unmediated by our sense-perception, is something other than the phenomenal world in which we live.

But is it?

However, this may not be fatal for the correspondence theory because it may be that to say that the world is divided between the noumenal and the phenomenal is simply a fact about our perception of the world. Of course, the realist and the idealist positions cannot both be true but that does not in itself collapse the correspondence theory – we simply don’t know which one is true.

The second theory is referred to as the coherence theory in which truth is linked to rational enquiry that is a ‘coherent, interlocking structure, a reflective equilibrium in which all our beliefs about a subject matter fit together’. This an attractive theory which requires that we are coherent and consistent in our approach to the world. This idea does, to a certain extent, dovetail with the correspondence theory because a coherent theory must at least consist of statements that correspond with the facts. Nevertheless, it is not a complete theory because we may still be concerned that a ’roundly coherent body of belief’ might just be a ‘giant fiction’.

So, we need a further move and this is provided by the pragmatic theory, which focuses exclusively on successful outcome. The link between truth and success is associated with American pragmatists like C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey (who featured in a previous blog called The return of the public). It is founded on the idea that the truth of a theory is dependant on its success.

The pragmatic theory of truth

A classic example is quantum physics, which, while not fully understood, is nevertheless one of the most successful scientific theories ever. Who cares if we don’t understand it if it is so useful?

And finally we have what is called ‘deflationism’ which states that the notion of truth may work in the background but in the end it makes ‘no difference whether we simply assert something or assert it prefacing the assertion with it is true that’. So, by this Blackburn means that we don’t actually need the category ‘truth’ just assertion ‘that X’ and so-on. “Truth is only present as deflationists say as a device for pointing in the general direction in which the real explanation is to be found,” writes Blackburn. The problem with this position is rather similar to the one relating to correspondence theory in that by demoting truth to a signpost to the real explanation one is creating a distinction without a difference in that the proposition ‘real explanation that’ is the same as saying ‘it is true that’.

It is small wonder that postmodernists and populists have had such fun with the notion of truth if none of us can state exactly what truth is. It is a feature of all the theories that they don’t actually say anything about truth itself, rather they furnish us with methods of finding truth – even if they do so imperfectly. The problem with finding the truth about truth is that it is constantly in danger of plummeting down a vicious spiral of circularity. But maybe this is a feature of truth. Just as we can see but not see ourselves seeing or hear but not hear ourselves hearing, may be we can find the truth without knowing what truth itself is. Just as we can find out about the world by deploying the empirical method without being able to prove the method by deploying it, not at least without fatal circularity.

All that we can say is that, in the first instance, we can say with a high degree of probability that if a proposition fails to correspond with reality, is incoherent, is unsuccessful and fails to provide a ‘real explanation’ then it is untrue. Equally, the more of these theories that a proposition does meet then we can have increasing confidence that it is true – or at least as true as we are likely to get.


The logic of freedom

The absurdity of life

FOR some the Universe is simply absurd. This realisation happens when all our searches for meaning disappear into the silent Universe, which is indifferent to our petty struggles. It’s when we suddenly understand that we are not really attempting to save the planet against the ravages of climate change but just the flora and fauna (including humans) as they happen to be configured now – the planet will continue for the next 100 billion years or so before it is absorbed by the cooling sun.

But for philosopher Mariam Thalos this sense of absurdity happens when we step outside of the warmth of our collective lives into the cold of the ‘uncentred perspective’. And in an intriguing move in her book A Social Theory of Freedom she argues that this ‘stepping-out experience’ should actually ‘de-absurdize the life’ one lives because ‘afterwards it should feel warmer to reenter your life’. She adds: “If you feel a de-naturing of the world, upon stepping out of your life, you should feel a re-naturing of it upon your safe return.” Unfortunately for some of us this sense of de-naturing, absurdity and alienation persists if we ‘cannot execute the rentry’. Chillingly she writes: “They are those people who, prior to stepping out, lived without a sense of solidarity with others, for you will have an incentive to reenter and resume a much more enlivened life for the sake of those who mattered before you executed your initial exit.”

It may come as something of a surprise to learn that all this talk about solidarity comes at the end of a book about human freedom. But it is essential to her case because for there to be freedom at all there has to be a Self and it is this initial separation that creates that Self in separation from others. For her, and unlike Mary Midgley (who featured in Escaping the cage of the Self on this blog), the Self emerges out of the collective and we humans are ‘shifting constantly back and forth’ between the two – always supposing one isn’t stuck out in the cold of course.

A solitary trail out in the cold!

Thalos describes herself as a compatibilist, which normally means that you accept the terms of determinism but believe that human freewill is compatible with it – indeed many argue that determinism is essential for freewill. They deploy what is called interventionism, which means that although we are subject to the laws of nature, we are able to intervene and effect our own free actions. Thalos, however, argues for a form of compatibilism but one whose ‘conception of freedom will skirt the problem of determinism’. Instead, Thalos argues that freewill is centred on the Self, embedded in solidarity with Others. But crucially the Self cannot be found in experience – as Gilbert Ryle memorably discovered in The Concept of Mind – because it isn’t there. For her freedom is a logic and, she insists, logic is not subject to the laws of nature. From an existential perspective, she argues that the Self is a concept – more precisely a self-conception that emerges out of the logical ‘fit’ between an agent’s conception of themselves and the facts of their circumstances. It is in this very struggle between her self-conception and the constraints she encounters in society that her freedom emerges. Thalos insists that this concept of freedom is a logical, not empirical, form, even though it seems at times as though she is carrying out a delicate high wire act that is in danger of collapsing into the empirical and, presumably therefore, deterministic world.

Ryle is famously takes a derogatory line against Descartes’s ‘I’ which he brands the ‘ghost in the machine.

The ghost in the machine

But Thalos is much more sympathetic to Descartes. “Bodies, as Descartes envisioned, are under the sovereignty of the laws of motion (that we might refer to today as causal laws or dynamical laws), but minds are not. Mind is in no way a space-filler, subject to the laws of motion. Mind is subject to the laws of thought, to laws of reason, hence the separation between mind and body,” she writes.

Where Descartes went wrong was to jump to the conclusion that the ‘I’ was out there in experience. What in fact he had stumbled upon, according to Thalos, was the ‘logic of experience’. And even if, like David Hume and Ryle, we can find no evidence of the Self in experience, it does not follow that we should dispense with the Self. The logic of experience is ‘a theory of action that speaks of ongoing activity mediated by a Self (constituted in part by a self-conception) that is in turn subject to modification by a variety of interactions between Self and Others’.

One of the problems with this position is that it is difficult to see how the purely logical form of the self-conception can interact with Others without collapsing into the empirical world of causation. It is also in danger of a horrible circularity in that saying that the Self is a self-conception is close to the trivial statement that the Self is the Self. And it sails perilously close to the infinite regress because if we say that the Self creates the Self, who creates the original Self?

Although she doesn’t refer to it herself, the solution to the last two problems may be provided by the multi-disciplinary work of Kristina Masholt in Thinking about Oneself in which the author concludes that the Self proper is preceded by a non-reflective self which is able to develop a sense of the reflective Self through its entanglement with the Other. This idea seems to mitigate our concerns about infinite regress and circularity while establishing the foundations of a self which, on Thalos’s account, only achieves freedom when it steps out of the collective. But there remains two major problems: the first is the ever-present danger of collapsing into determinism and the other is that all this talk about the logic of the Self threatens to make freedom the preserve of the educated elite.

It’s fair to say that Thalos is sceptical about the truth of determinism but, nevertheless, is determined to escape its orbit. She attempts to achieve escape velocity by asserting that we do not ‘need to accept exclusively physicalistic, behaviouristic or biological terminology in the description of human behaviour. Instead, she argues for the social sciences because they are not universalistic like physics and biology but are ‘much more sensitive to the presence of individual variation’.

Her attempt to escape the elitist threat involves the use of what she calls Imitative Reasoning in which role models perform the function of creating the ‘fit’ between an individual’s conception of her self and her social circumstances from which her freedom emerges.

Thalos’s book has more surprises and plot twists than Line of Duty and as a result it is difficult to navigate one’s way through the thicket of ideas. It is not clear whether she has succeeded in freeing freedom from the clutches of determinism or whether her conclusion is as disappointing as that of the long-running TV show.


The return of the public

The traditional image of a dystopian future is belied by the reaction to the pandemic

ONE of the most fascinating phenomena in modern life is the tension between the widespread apathy about what might be called traditional party politics on the one hand and an increasing engagement with community activity on the other. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that international crises do not necessarily lead to a dystopian society of a war of all against all – to mix popular science fiction and Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, the increasing interest in communal activity and a desire to help out seems to matched by an equal and opposite decline in party politics. People seem to be really engaged as long as you don’t call the activity politics. And yet, if things are to change for the better we need people to be engaged in both politics and community action. So, is there a way of achieving this? According to the pragmatic American philosopher John Dewey there is – and it involves deliberation.

Deliberation is important for democracy, according to Dewey

For Dewey legitimacy was as important in 1927 when he wrote The Public and its Problems as it seems to be today. Indeed, he links the majoritarianism of representative government and deliberation as a way of understanding and justifying democracy, not simply as two ideas that may, or may not, combine. He argues that the fact that there isn’t a conflict after every election so that society isn’t always split into friend and foe, is proof that ‘the governors and the governed’ in representative government are not ‘two classes’ but ‘two aspects of the same truth’. Of course, it may seem to us today that the present state of representative government suggests that there are indeed ‘two classes’ of the governors and the governed and that society really is split into friend and foe. Still, one may hope that this is a temporary state not a permanent one and one that can be tempered by deliberation.

Can deliberation bring us together?

In his introduction to the 2016 edition published by Swallow Press Melvin Rogers writes: “Forming the will of the democratic community, for Dewey, is a process of thoughtful interaction in which the preferences of citizens are both informed and transformed by public deliberation as citizens struggle to decide which policies will best satisfy and address the commitments and needs of the community.” And he adds: “It is no wonder that many see Dewey as an important spokesperson for deliberative democracy.” Dewey himself argues that the very forces that have brought about representative government have also halted the ‘social and humane ideals that demand the utilization of government as the genuine instrumentality of an inclusive and fraternally associated public’ which means that the ‘democratic public is still largely inchoate and marginalized’.

In a moment of pessimism Dewey suggests that his arguments seem ‘close to denial of the possibility of realizing the idea of a democratic public’. Many years before the rise of neoliberalism Dewey writes that ‘one of the many obstacles in the path is the seemingly ingrained notion that the first and last problem which must be solved is the relation of the individual and the social’. According to Dewey, however, ‘an individual whatever else it is or is not, is not just the spatially isolated thing our imagination inclines to take it to be’.

And this ‘demands, as we have also seen, perceptions of a joint activity and of the distinctive share of of each element in producing it’. This does not mean that groups, or indeed political parties, will always exist in harmony and without conflict or that an individual will not have conflicting selves. But what it does mean is that the division between the individual and the social is dissolved. If society can be oppressive it is membership of specific associations that is oppressive not our material and social being per se.

Dewey in a statement which could be the motto of Salisbury Democracy Alliance’s campaign for Citizens’ Assemblies, writes that the essential need ‘is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion’. Further: “Ideas which are not communicated, shared, and reborn in expression are but soliloquy, and soliloquy is but broken and imperfect thought.”

It is difficult not to read into Dewey a plea for more deliberative democracy. His view is that the division between society and the individual is a false dichotomy that can lead to the kind of fallacies that demand that if you are not for us you are against us.

The real question, as this blog has noted before, is how the individual emerges as an embedded but critically engaged citizen – and for that we need the right conditions for such an agent to emerge, an agent that recognises its social being but also helps to shape that social being.


Reason versus reason

IT is often thought that the main threat to the kind of rationality so admired by enthusiasts for the Enlightenment is, well, irrationality – faith, alternative medicines and the New Age movement. Indeed this view seems to be cemented by the wild irrationality of Trump and his followers – although one does wonder sometimes whether Trump was actually being supremely clever by discombobulating his opponents. But that disturbing thought aside, what if the greatest threat to reason is not irrationality but misdirected reason?

Is irrationality the greatest threat to reason?

That is the view of Dan Hind in his fascinating book The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment was hijacked and how we can reclaim it. When you first open this book you expect an attack on the irrational but Hind startles when he announces that this approach misses the point. He calls the attack on irrationality Folk Enlightenment and he is dismissive of its adherents, including Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who make a clear demarcation between the pure defenders of reason and its enemies mired in unreason. “It saturates our intellectual culture and informs many of our assumptions about public life. As a consequence political disputes about the distribution of resources are recast as metaphysical clashes between abstract nouns,” he writes. Further: “Some of those who defend the Enlightenment from its irrational enemies offer up ‘the great divide’ between faith and reason, rather than the old conflict between Left and Right, as the central organising opposition of our time.”

The great divide?

For Hind, however, the real division is between what he calls Occult and Open Enlightenment. He uses the word ‘Occult’ in honour of Francis Bacon, the father of experimental science who, nevertheless, ‘drew on the techniques and love of magic’ in much the same way as Isaac Newton, who wrote more about religion than science, drew heavily on the traditions of alchemy – more in tune with the great the great 16th century magus, alchemist and astrologer John Dee than modern day physics. (See this blog for two articles about Dee and his relationship with the Pembrokes at Wilton House).

It should be said that Hind does not downplay the dangers that can arise from the misuse of alternative medicine or the relativism of postmodernism, although he points out that the latter’s ‘concern that Enlightenment and modernity can provide cover for crimes has ample justification’. However, he makes a persuasive case against the kind of Occult Enlightenment that uses reason to undermine reason itself. And he reserves his main artillery for Big Pharma, which uses science to ‘undermine the open, humane science they claim to champion’ by ‘withholding information’ presenting ‘information to the public in misleading ways’ and then ‘punishing those who inform the public’. He adds: “Given that pharmaceutical medicine is fifty times more lucrative, and considerably more lethal than the herbal and homeopathic alternatives, the institutions that control the business might be suspected of posing a greater threat to reason than their Reiki-practising competitors. Other manifestations of Occult Enlightenment past and present include the ‘desire for total knowledge’ in the service of the British Empire and the invasion of Iraq.

According to Hind, the solution to the threat of misdirected reason is what he calls Open Enlightenment, or an enquiry into the world unencumbered by the self-interested ‘reason’ of the state and corporations. He argues that the Open Enlightenment will be met with ‘ridicule or worse’ but this will be worth it because it will allow us ‘to live at least part of the time as truth-loving individuals’ as we ‘become authors of our own Enlightenment’.

The main thrust of Hind’s argument is a powerful one and a corrective to those of us who have, perhaps, been guilty of taking a kind of perverse pleasure in attacking the easy targets of unreason, while underplaying those forces of reason that actually undermine the reason of the Open Enlightenment. In some ways it follows in the footsteps of The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway who exposed ‘how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades’.

In a side argument Hind makes the claim that ‘there is no way that reason can cause us to believe in God, but neither can it cause us to believe that it is wrong to kill’. This appears to be based on Davide Hume’s assertion that reason is the slave of the passions, which raises another mighty split between those who follow Hume and others, like the American philosopher Thomas Nagel who argues in The Possibility of Altruism that ‘just as there are rational requirements on thought, there are rational requirements on action’.

Are faith and morality equally distant from reason?

Indeed, there are some evolutionary biologists, including Dawkins, who argue that altruism is part of our genetic make-up. And it is certainly possible to define altruism in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. There are also various normative ethical theories that attempt to conceptualize and objectify morality. None of this is to say that the passions do not often, perhaps most of the time, trump reason, but nor does it follow that reason can never be deployed when considering ethics.

However, this is all something of a distraction from Hind’s argument, which remains untouched by the truth or otherwise of his moral assertion. It therefore remains a serious challenge for all of us who in one way or another support the ideals of the Enlightenment, not to fall into the trap of Folk Enlightenment but, rather, to have the courage to create a truly Open Enlightenment.


What’s the point of privacy?

The invasion of our privacy

MUCH has been written – not least on this blog – about the perilous state of our privacy. The problem is that over the past 30 years or so humanity has been slowly infantilized as advertisers, powerful lobbyists, think tanks, the state and social media have infiltrated our brains. According to Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, it was the psychologist B. K. Skinner who realised the political value of it all and ‘viewed the creative and often messy conflicts of politics, especially democratic politics, as a source of friction that threatened the rational efficiency of the community as a single, high functioning super-organism’.

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han has dubbed the whole phenomenon psycho-politics and, somewhat desperately, called on us to become idiots in the mould of Dostoevsky’s ‘positively beautiful man’ in The Idiot who clashes with the emptiness of 19th century Russian society.

But what if a) it’s too late for us to do anything about our loss of privacy and b) it may not matter too much because we give it too much significance anyway? This is the position of Firmin DeBrabander in Life After Privacy. DeBrabander argues that privacy is both a relatively recent phenomenon and, in a different form, much older than people think. For many, our modern conception of privacy is essential for representative government and requires a ‘legal and physical architecture’ to support it. Drawing on Stoic and early Christian writings, however, DeBrabander claims that the ‘virtues of privacy can be achieved by other means’. He continues: “Stoic philosophy…praises the virtue of emotional resilience and equilibrium.

Battling for emotional resilience

“The Stoics called it ‘constancy’ where one is not over excited or deflated by external events, the opinion of others, or personal interactions.” This is something that some of us at least find difficult to muster, especially when we see injustice. But importantly DeBrabander does not make the mistake of casting the Stoicism as a purely individualistic philosophy recommending that we retreat into ourselves. Rather, the way we interact with our environment and with other people ‘is instrumental to how you transform your mind and behaviour’. It has to be said that for some these principles will be easy to follow but for others…well, less so. But that does mean that they are without value in at least trying to follow them.

This view, writes DeBrabander, is very different from the Liberal turn of mind which ‘conceives citizens as atomistic individuals, responsible for their own values and destiny – who will reason and vote accordingly’. Another narrative, he claims, and one much closer to Stoicism, has it that we ‘develop the competency for autonomy through our social interactions with other persons’.

DeBrabander draws a distinction between the two as being the difference between the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ sense of privacy. In the first it is assumed that we must ‘protect the space of individual freedom’ where we can do whatever we like as long as we don’t harm others, as John Stuart Mill put in his Harm Principle. In contrast DeBrabander writes: “Rather, we must reconnect to the values, virtues, norms, and habits of democratic life, in order to produce citizens who can better withstand the efforts of manipulation and control.” Indeed, as far as he is concerned, this is the only realistic way of containing the machinations of the State and Big Tech because as atomistic individuals we are vulnerable to manipulation, as Hannah Arendt noted in her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism.

For centuries political liberals have conceived us as being first and foremost individuals and, in one iteration, argue that under social contract theory, society is ‘formed when individuals, after independent reflection, decide to contract together’. But DeBrabander will have none of this: “I suspect, rather, that we are social through and through.” For him the public sphere is where our true humanity thrives – in what the ancient Athenians called the Agora.

The glories of the Agora – apart from the slave bit obviously!

For the Athenians the private space was for the idiotes and was the realm of privation, of the unskilled and ignorant. For sure, we need solitude to restore our reflective selves, but this is far from the isolation and loneliness engendered by classical liberalism and is a by-product of democracy not fundamental to it. As DeBrabander writes: “A democracy worthy of the name requires that people are invested in policy-making decisions, and in the elevation and pursuit of guiding ideals.” Further: “To the extent that we have privacy or anything that approaches it, like the solitude conducive to thought, it relies on public action, interaction, and sustenance.”

The conclusion of all this is not that, as Han have it, that we must become Idiots – and certainly not in the sense that it was meant by the ancient Athenians – but, rather, that we reclaim the public sphere or Agora whence we can seek positive solitude when necessary, not have loneliness foisted on us.

It’s hard not to look to the deliberative democracy practiced every month by Salisbury Democracy Alliance at its Salisbury and Bemerton Heath Democracy Cafés or the Citizens’ Assembly it ultimately want to create and equate that with DeBrabander ‘s notion of people being ‘involved in public policy-making decisions’. At the same time one cannot help but wonder whether it’s too late, in the same way that it’s too late for our current concerns about privacy. But to quote the Ingenious Gentleman himself: “I know not whether I ought to avow myself the good one, but I dare venture to assent that I am not the bad one.” And maybe that’s just enough for us to continue tilting at windmills!


Many lives make hard work!

WHO hasn’t wondered how our lives would have gone if THAT hadn’t happened or, perhaps, something else HAD? Throughout our lives we make decisions, or decisions are made for us, and our narrative unfolds. But in the arts and in science the idea that there could have been other lives lived has gained traction. As Vimes says in Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch: “I know all about that. Like, you make a decision in this universe and you made a different decision in another one.” The idea is front and centre in Matt Haig’s popular novel The Midnight Library (One library. Infinite lives) in which the protagonist Nora Seed is given the chance to ‘live as if she had done things differently’. Yanis Varoufakis uses the idea in his Another Now. Dispatches from an Alternative Present in an extraordinary mixture of fiction and non-fiction to envisage the creation of a ‘non-capitalist world in which work, money, land, digital networks and politics have been truly democratized’.

But it is, perhaps, best expressed in Robert Frost’s enigmatic poem The Road Not Taken. As it happens, it is this work that Andrew H. Miller takes as the starting point of his book On Not Being Someone Else – Tales of our Untold Lives. For Miller it is actually his sense of singularity that makes him think of ‘unled lives’. And he believes that it is the singularity created by neoliberalism that has generated this modern sensibility. “The main engine driving this modern experience has no doubt been market capitalism, with its isolation of individuals and its accelerating generation of choices and chances, moulding behaviour in ever increasing ways.”, he writes.

Apart from the deployment of Robert Frost, Miller also calls on an array of authors and artists ranging from Ian McEwan to Virginia Woolf, who often felt that her singularity felt like ‘solitary confinement’ and that she was both ‘prison and prisoner, trapped in this body and these habits’. Miller writes: “At such moments, the thought of being someone else seems an escape. But who would be escaping? And where would they go?” Where indeed? It is in fact quite hard to see how dreaming about an alternative but unattainable life makes any difference. And as Dr Alexandre Leskanich in issue 141 of Philosophy Now on the the possibility of being someone she’s not writes: “I know this, but I don’t know what it means.” One can imagine trying to imagine who one might have been had things happened differently being an interesting parlour game, but is it any more significant than that other than, perhaps, useful material for a book? Nietzsche uses his thought experiment of eternal recurrence to determine one’s commitment to life which only an ubermensch could achieve. But this, of course, is the affirmation of one life lived over and over again – not many lives.

To be sure, imagining the life not lived may help to define the life one does live, but might it not also lead to the dissolution of the Self.

The dissolution of the Self

Ruminating on the lives not lived can lead to a loosening of one’s singularity as one one realises just how contingent the life one does live actually is. It might lead to the break down of the Self as an indivisible individual into a divisible dividual constructed out of a loose bundle of emotions and character traits which, say, our executive function is constantly trying to corral into a more or less coherently functioning unit. If so, this is not necessarily a bad thing and would, of course, chime with the Buddhist notion of the non-self. But it is hard work to live such a life.

It is curious that Miller never ventures away from literature or art into the world of science where there is at least some credibility for alternative lives (if precious little evidence) – especially in the weird and wonderful world of quantum physics. As Pratchett points out quantum theory posits the idea of multiple universe – indeed, some argue that the truth of quantum physics entails multiverses. The idea of many worlds existed in ancient Greek philosophy but also gained traction among 20th century physicists. Among the most vociferous is Max Tegmark who proposes a taxonomy of four levels of multiverses in his book Our Mathematical Universe in which each level is arranged so that subsequent levels encompass the previous. It should be said, however, that this a highly contentious theory with some critics arguing that such a thesis cannot be tested, bears great resemblance to theological discussions and is just as ad hoc as the creation of an unseen creator.

Undoubtedly, the multiverse hypothesis is a highly contested field but it is, nevertheless, strange that Miller never engages with it in his entertaining book. Is it anything more than just entertaining? Probably not. It is fine to speculate whether one’s odd dreams, for example, are actually glimpses into alternative universes – but it’s not clear whether such speculation is anything more than an indulgence and one that can be hard work. As Miller himself writes: “All you can do is try to see the bright present truly, and in seeing, join it.”


Can there be meaning in a silent universe?

LIVING in a silent universe (or universes) can be dispiriting. A previous article on this blog claimed that it was the reduction in a sense of a higher authority that had led to an existential crisis. If there is no God what meaning is there? In that article Frank Martela in his book A Wonderful LIFE argued that we should shift from trying to find the meaning of life to meaning in life.

The demise of God also plays a major role in A Significant Life – Human Meaning in a Silent Universe by Todd May. But May goes deeper still into the problems we face in a secular universe. He begins at ground zero exemplified by Albert Camus for whom the universe is indeed silent. For Camus thoughts about meaning are ‘symptoms of the absurd’. Todd writes: “The absurd itself is something very precise. It is the confrontation of our need for meaning with the unwillingness of the universe to yield it to us.” Camus draws on the Myth of Sisyphus in his book of the same name to bring out this sense of the absurd while urging us to gain freedom by courageously acknowledging this unavoidable absurdity.

Sisyphus, who was condemned to repeat the same meaningless task for eternity.

May, however, is not finished with meaning and turns his attention to Aristotle for whom the flourishing of human life is an ongoing activity involving the commitment to be ‘intellectually engaged with the world’. But while May admires Aristotle he asks whether a life that is lived well and does good is also a meaningful one. Unlike Camus, for Aristotle the universe is not silent – rather it is a structured, ordered telos which humans can discover. And it is this telos, embedded in the universe, that provides Aristotle with his meaning. But as May points out – we are not Aristotle. The universe is not ‘ordered in such a way that everything has its telos’ and the cosmos is not for us a rational place’.

A rational universe? Maybe not.

So, attractive though Aristotle’s conception of the flourishing human life may be, it lacks the meaning that he sought.

And even if we accept the existence of God, that cannot help us as Socrates makes clear in the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro when he asks: “Is what is holy, holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy.” (This not the first time that this question has featured in this blog). Now, we have to assume that because God is considered to be good he has to conform to what is actually good. “God cannot ground the good because God answers to it,” writes May. And, further, there ‘must be something about the universe independent of God that offers human lives a sense of meaningfulness that God himself must answer to’. As we have seen, however, the idea that some sense of the good forms part of a rational universe does not hold water either.

Rejecting God and Aristotle, May sees if he can also reject Camus’s bleak prospectus – and he begins this task by shifting to Martela’s position of attempting to find meaning in life. His first venture is what he calls the ‘narrative approach’ in which ‘humans must take the resources they are given, develop them into a flourishing life and then sustain (or in the case of great misfortune, restore) that flourishing over the course of their personal histories’. This, of course, sounds a lot like Aristotle but without the rational universe. May also acknowledges that there is another problem with this approach because not all narratives provide meaning in the way that he hopes they will. He writes about the depressed life – and we might also point to narratives that are attenuated by poverty and those for whom the past is something people would rather forget. Another problem is that for some people, like the philosopher Galen Strawson (who has also featured in a previous article on this blog), their lives are not driven by narratives and their self-experience is more episodic than diachronic.

So, in the light of this, May’s next move is to write about what he calls ‘narrative values’ like steadfastness, intellectual curiosity, intensity, integrity and so on.

Is intellectual curiosity the answer?

It still looks as though we are drifting back towards an attenuated Aristotle here but May ploughs on: “In approaching life by way of narrative values then, we find that the meaningfulness does not lie in the narrative itself. Instead, we are asking whether that narrative is characterized by or expresses a theme that would give it value.” With reference to Strawson, he adds: “It might be that although Episodic, his life is nevertheless steadfast in its attention to a small range of important philosophical concerns.” It’s important to point out that May is not referring to moral values here because, obviously, the steadfastness of Eichmann in pursuing the Final Solution is rendered morally worthless. However, he does claim that both moral and narrative values do have the required degree of objectivity to mean something beyond the purely subjective, even if, at the same time, they are made up. As he argues that, because values are subject to reasoning they are not arbitrary. “If this is right, then we can say both that our values are made up and that they are, in an important way, objective,” he claims. To be sure, values operate within a tradition and network of practices.

For May, our values are not ‘assured by the universe’ or in God, but nor or they product of blind whim. For some this might not be enough but for the rest of us, he writes ‘although this may not be all the objectivity we would like, perhaps it is the objectivity we need’. To use an analogy in the world of art, even Malevich’s famous Black Square contains within it traces of meaning, particularly when it is seen in the context of his life’s work.


Life in the void!

WE may often find ourselves in a sort of other world: that moment when we awake and momentarily are not sure where we are, or even who we are. Or perhaps one’s memory of a place does not match reality on a return visit. This may be, of course, that things have actually changed. But often it’s because our memories play tricks on us. Is there a space – a void – somewhere between perceptions? This a notion that occupies the maverick philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his Incontinence of the void in which he explores the spaces between philosophy, psychoanalysis and political economy. As he delves into the realm of pure thought he quotes Hegel thus: “The system of logic is the realm of shadows, the realm of simple essentialities freed from all sensuous concreteness. The study of this science, to dwell and labor in this shadowy realm, is the absolute culture and discipline of consciousness.”

And we are in shadowy world – but without the logic – in Beyond Philosophy by philosophers Nancy Tuana and Charles Scott as they peer at life beyond certainties ‘beyond formations, values, and meaning – and to the libertory power that attunements with beyond can occasion’. They want to ‘rattle the cages of our certainties’ and ask whether we can carry out our commitments ‘without the illusion of fixed certainty’. In doing so they explore the worlds of Nietzsche and his sense of ‘beyond good and evil’, Michael Foucault’s ‘unreason’ and Gloria Anzaldua’s Napantha – a liminal space ‘where you are not this or that but where you are changing’.

A liminal space

For Nietzsche, of course, it meant beyond ‘conformity, beyond those satisfied with their goodness, and beyond the evil created by their God. But not beyond the night sounds of the forest, the deep howls from the darkness’. For him it is the wildness of Dionysus that matters, not the cold, bloodless rationality of Apollo; the ‘joyful affirmation of life with its suffering and tragedies’ rather than the solace of life-denial. In part Nietzsche is valorising the noble warrior – the Ubermensch, although the authors wonder whether we can transfer our admiration to natural leaders or people who have an ‘exceptional energy to take charge’ over all those who are ‘low-minded, common and plebeian’, without losing Nietzsche’s dynamics.

The wildness of Dionysus

Tuana and Scott also home in on Foucault’s concept of unreason, which can refer to any ‘event, state of mind, or manner or behaviour that is beyond reasonable sense or rational authority’. But it not opposed to reason – it’s just different from reason. The authors praise the anarchic freedom ‘which will find shelter in unreason’, which is freed from ‘normal decency’.

The deliberate destabilizing of Nietzsche and Foucault finds its apogee in the thought of Anzaldua who eschews reform in favour of transformations ‘which occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries’. It’s a state she calls ‘dwelling in liminalities’. More than Nietzsche or Foucault Anzaldua links this state with ‘social, political action and lived experiences to generate subversive knowledge’.

One might be forgiven for feeling a tad queasy after all this but Tuana and Scott attempt to bring it all together with what they call ‘liberatory philosophy’: “We are speaking of profound experiential and social transformation out of which people come to think, feel, desire, and act in ways that were not previously possible.” They are looking not simply to make reforms ‘if that means taking the same forms and expanding them or rearranging them’ but to transform in the liminal spaces’. One of the problems that the authors readily acknowledge is the fear of getting lost in these spaces but their, perhaps not entirely satisfactory answer, is to embrace this fear and a ‘willingness to be undone’. Further: “We wish to influence shifts of habits, affective dispositions, and attunements so as to catalyze transformations in ways of living.”

Liberatory philosophy?

One obvious response to all this is how do you live your life in a world of such instability and uncertainty; how do you break out of the world of unreason, the ‘dwelling in liminalities’ in order to establish a firm foothold for social action sufficiently coherent to effect the transformation one seeks? For those of us already in a permanent liminal state, in which there is no indivisible individual only what might be called dividuals – a bundle of character traits and emotions – and for whom the daily task is to coral all these disparate forces into some sort of coherent action, Beyond Philosophy offers only paralysis. It seems at times as though the authors are guilty of importing their previously held positions – particularly about climate change – without demonstrating why you need to plunge into the depths of liminality to have them. Without some sort of intellectual grounding there doesn’t appear to be any ‘reason’ or bulwark against Trumpism, alternative facts and amoral chaos.

And their answer to concerns like these is: “Perhaps the question is rather: How do we desire to live in the world? Apathetically? Without passion even though passion intensifies peoples living experience?” One is tempted to respond to this by saying that there is already much passion in the world, perhaps too much, and, to misquote D’Alambert, if we get rid of logic and reason and ethics, we would still have plenty of passion and ‘we would have ignorance in addition’.


Back to Eternity!


CULTURE wars and alternative facts have become the battleground of modern politics – or at least they have for some on the right of the political spectrum. It is often said that the problem with the Left is that it still thinks that political thinking is still about, well, politics, while the Right has shifted to culture. It’s not that they are simply on different sides – they are on different playing fields. We all know about the phenomenon of ‘alternative facts’ and the so-called ‘post-truth era’, but is this more than just a political strategy by the Right in order to gain power? According to Benjamin R. Teitelbaum there is much more.

Teitelbaum is a Professor of ethnography at the University of Colorado, but he is also an award-winning expert on the radical right. His new book War for Eternity focuses on an obscure philosophical movement called Traditionalism. It would probably have remained in obscurity had it not been adopted by people in real power, or at least those who have at one time or another attracted the attention of those in power – people like Steve Bannon and advisors to Putin and Bolsonaro. Teitelbaum has been studying Traditionalism for years and argues that it underpins the intellectual justification of much of the populist right, including Nigel Farage. According to Teitelbaum Traditionalists set themselves against modernity – that is, they are opposed to modern secularism, socialism – even capitalism – and universal values like human rights, all of which they see as illegitimate forces working to replace their preferred social, cultural and political hierarchies.

Teitelbaum writes: “Traditionalists follow Hinduism in believing that human history has always cycled through four distinct ages from a gold age to a silver to bronze and to the dark before moving back to gold and starting the cycle again.” Each age belongs to a particular type of person descending from a priestly or spiritual class (gold), down through warrior (silver), merchant (bronze) and, finally the slavery of the dark age.

The golden spiritual age

There are variations in the structure of this hierarchy but all Traditionalists believe that we are currently in the dark ages and, while Hinduism says that this cycle can take millions of years to complete, they believe that it can take place over a much shorter, human timescale. There is a a certain fatalism in all of this, of course, but Traditionalists believe that one can accelerate the decay of the dark ages in order to return to the golden age all the sooner. It is in this context that phrases like ‘creative destruction’ and ‘make America great again’ gain a new resonance.

One of Traditionalism’s leading thinkers is the Italian Julius Evola, who added a layer of cultural bigotry with ‘whiter, Aryan people constituting a historical ideal atop those with darker skins – Semites, Africans, and other non-Aryans’. Chillingly, he saw tyrants like Hitler and Mussolini as a kind of destructive ‘readjustment’. And Bannon saw Trump as a destructive force, hastening the end of the dark ages (the fact that Trump saw himself as a builder may have contributed to the rift between them).

Fundamentally, Traditionalists are opposed to the very idea of progress while cyclical time gives them the intellectual cover for this view because the concept ‘recognises no past, present, or future’.

The cycle of life

Teitelbaum writes: “Those attuned to cyclic time do not attempt to progress toward a a previously unrealized state of virtue, condemning the present and the past in the process.” Further: “The cycle also entails a motion from the central core, away to its edges, and back again – centripetal and centrifugal. It entails movement of departure from the illusion of time and progress, and movement of return back towards the core of eternal truth, on and on.”

Teitelbaum argues that one of the most disturbing aspects of Traditionalism – apart from questions about the truth of cyclic time as such and, in particular its Hindu manifestation- is not its cultural bigotry, which some adherents don’t agree with anyway, but the idea that we can never make progress. The fact that we no longer hang, draw or quarter people or legalize profit from enslaving people is irrelevant. What’s important is a return to the golden age of spirituality, even if that entails a return to barbaric practices and enslavement. Indeed, the very notion of slavery has been turned on its head so that we in our Western ‘modernity’ are not actually free but enslaved by materialism and consumerism. In fact, some of their concerns about what some call the psycho-politics of Big Data and neoliberalism does have some resonance . Those on the Left, however, are more likely to seek ways of countering the wilful ignorance that goes hand-in-hand with psycho-politics in an attempt to encourage more critically aware and engaged citizens; while Traditionalists are more likely to see psycho-politics as a welcome sign of the degeneration of the dark ages on the way to spiritual renewal.

For some this choice is no real choice at all because they will find nothing intellectually attractive about Traditionalism, but in so far as it is important to know how at least some quite influential people think, then Teitelbaum has done us all a favour.


Climb every mountain!

The mountain of truth

IN this world of alternative facts and relativism it’s comforting to know that there is a hilltop far away where the light of truth still flickers – if somewhat dimly. Indeed, towards the end of the 16th century the metaphor of the hilltop of truth was used by Francis Bacon – who was to become Lord High Chancellor in 1617 – to exalt the notion of Truth: “It is a pleasure to stand upon the shore and to see ships tost upon the Sea: A pleasure to stand in the window of a Castle, and to see a Battaile, and the Adventures thereof, below: But there is no pleasure comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of Truth: (A hill not to be commanded, and where the Ayre is alwaies cleare and serene;) And to see the Errours, and Wanderings, and Mists, and Tempests, in the vale below:”. (By the the way, spellcheck had a field day in that section!).

But this beautiful description of Truth – almost equating it with beauty – has been seriously undermined by what might be called postmodern epistemic relativism and, as Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom put it in Why Truth Matters, attacks on the ‘canons of coherence, logic, rationality and relevance – which are reminiscent…of counter-enlightenment and reaction’. We can see the results in the shameless lies and, at best, dissembling of the Trumps, Johnsons and Cummings of this world. It should be added that a common tactic of the post-truth brigade is to misrepresent the Enlightenment as privileging reason over everything else and in so doing attempting to eliminate mystery from the world.

The Enlightenment

However, as D’Alambert wrote in response to Rousseau’s contempt for Enlightenment rationality: “In sum, even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point about the disadvantage of human knowledge, which is far from our intention here, we are even farther from believing that anything would be gained by destroying it. Vices would remain with us, and we would have ignorance in addition.” Without an appeal to truth and reason he who shouts loudest wins, so we are ill-advised to deliberately try to undermine reason and respect for truth-seeking because, ultimately, these are the only tools we have against the tyranny of ignorance.

It is easy to despair sometimes in the face of the constant flow of almost wilful ignorance, the siren calls of the tech giants and the effluvial stream of postmodern irony – but there are still beacons of hope out there, standing atop the mountain. The economist Tim Harford is one such beacon and his popular Radio 4 programme More or Less is a paean to Truth, attracting a loyal following. And his book How to Make the World Add Up – which was Book of the Week on Radio 4 towards the end of last year – is an appeal to the sort of rationality that is despised by people like Trump with their ‘alternative facts’.

In this book Harford provides 10 rules to deploy when we are trying to navigate our way through the dense thickets of statistics, and the first is to search your feelings. He writes: “Our emotions are powerful. We can’t make them vanish, and nor should we want to. But we can, and should, try to notice when they are clouding our judgement.”

Or emotions are powerful and we should be wary of them when they cloud our judgement

Other chapters take us through issues like the importance of taking our own experiences into account, as well as the statistics , because both can be true; avoiding jumping to conclusions too quickly; attempting to put statistics into a wider context; checking to see if there is any information missing; demanding transparency; not taking statistical bedrock for granted; and keeping an open mind. But his golden rule, if all else fails or is forgotten, is to ‘be curious’. Curiosity may be the cure for boredom and, as Harford writes, makes us ‘burn with the desire to know more.

Building with statistics

Once we have donned the crampons of Harford’s rules, we can begin to climb Bacon’s hilltop of Truth but what about the muddy waters of ethics? A moment’s thought, however, demonstrates that the ‘canons of cohesion, logic, rationality and relevance’ must also surely apply to ethics, even if our conclusions might be less firm than in in the realms of statistics and science. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes in The Nature of the Virtues even a ‘relatively coherent tradition of thought’ does not necessarily produce any real ‘unity of concept’. On the other hand not all is lost because he is able to come up with three conditions that would have to be met – and potentially found – for the ‘concept of virtue to be made intelligible’. He adds: “The first stage requires a background account of what I shall call a practice, the second an account of the narrative order of a single human life, and the third an account of what constitutes a moral tradition.” Thus, although we haven’t come to any conclusions, Macintyre does provide a ‘coherent, logical, rational and relevant’ framework within which we may be able to make progress.

And indeed progress has been made in other areas of moral theory. For example, Act Utilitarianism focuses purely on those acts which are likely to generate the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Deontology, on the other hand, is usually thought to eschew consequentialism because of the odd conclusions that the latter can, sometimes, throw up. The development of Rule Utilitarianism, however, is an attempt to reduce some of these uncomfortable conclusions while moving closer to Deontology, while some advocates of the latter do acknowledge that it does take some account of consequences.

As we have seen, the search of truth and reason in the uplands is far from dead – but it requires effort, something that the psychopolitics examined in a previous blog tends to undermine as Big Data and neoliberalism seek to turn us all into gibbering infantilized consumers. But surely it is worth the climb – even if we only get as far as the foothills.


How to escape the caged Self

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.” So wrote Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy in 1946. For Russell philosophy itself dwelt in the uncertain, uncomfortable position between the certain dogmas of theology and the relatively firm empirical ground of science. It may seem odd to write about uncertainty at a time when we seem to be more certain of our political and moral beliefs than ever. One is either a Brexiteer or a Remainer, a pro-lifer or pro-choicer, and individualist or a communitarian and so on and on – and ne’er the twain shall meet. And yet there is also a sense in which this apparent certainty is a cover for a deep-rooted uncertainty without having the inconvenience of having to think too much.

Bertrand Russell

Even Russell wasn’t immune from diving for cover in the form of Descartes’s homunculus or, as Gilbert Ryle put it derogatively his Concept of Mind the ‘ghost in the machine’. In The Problems of Philosophy Russell wrote: “Ultimately one has to come down to a sheer assertion that one does know this or that – eg one’s own existence.” And according to Mary Midgley in her remarkable book Wisdom, Information and Wonder this was the method recommended by Descartes. “Russell’s faith in this approach never faltered, however, and he regarded philosophers who moved away from it with a certain mystified disgust,” writes Mary Midgley, who was one of the quartet of great female philosophers along with Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe. Rather than questioning everything, as he claimed he was doing, Russell ‘sat very firmly on a particular set of assumptions which dictated just what he was and was not going to question, and which determined also the form of the question’.

Mary Midgley

For Midgley our society has been captured by this solipsistic notion that there is an entity trapped inside a metaphysical cage and from which we have to find a way of escaping. For Descartes and Bishop Berkeley the escape was provided by God. For Kant it was us who effectively created the objective manifold around us – and any knowledge of the world-in-itself was for ever beyond our ken. Meanwhile Schopenhauer, following on from Kant, opened his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation with the words: “The world is my representation.”

Rene Descartes meditates

In his epigrammatic work Tractatus logico-philosophicus Wittgenstein took a similar position. But by the time of his Philosophical Investigations he had completely flipped, acknowledging that we could not have had a concept of the Self in the first place unless we already thought of it as part of the outside world – thus, in one bound, escaping solipsism. And, as Midgley writes: “Certainly, too, we would have no language to speak of it (the world) if we did not conceive those others as able to communicate like ourselves, and living in a public world which could be communicated about.” Further, Descartes’s ‘I think, therefore I am’ is not ‘basic at all. It could not be because it is expressed in language’. And as Prof Raymond Tallis – who has endorsed the work of Salisbury Democracy Alliance (SDA) – writes in the latest edition of Philosophy Now: “When I tell you that no-one exists apart from myself, this is not a logical contradiction – rather, the very act of my asserting it to you makes sense only if what I assert is untrue.”

Prof Raymond Tallis

Meanwhile, in a passionate plea for for communitarianism and against the bleak solitude of the caged Self, Midgley writes: “From the deepest roots of our experience, we are social beings directly inhabiting the world, members of a community and of a species whose faculties have all evolved to fit them for a wide physical and social context, not solitary astronauts.”

And in a section that has particular relevance to today’s divisions, tribal thinking and social media echo chambers, she writes: “Moving away from Cartesianism, we may suggest that theoretical disputes as well as practical ones are best settled, not from on high, but by peaceful negotiation between the parties involved, with background help and advice from outside observers.” It’s a sentiment that could be set as a preamble for the justification of Citizens’ Assemblies, for which SDA is campaigning.


From the collective to the individual

IN some parts of Western society individualism rules supreme and reaches its apogee in neoliberalism in which the only relation that exists between individuals is transactional. This relationship is encapsulated within the mythical figure of Homo Economicus who is supposedly driven solely by rational self-interest and becomes a consumer and spectator in society rather than a participant. Philosophically, it is expressed in its purest form as methodological individualism, which asserts that all attempts to explain social or individual phenomena are to be rejected unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about individuals. The problem with this position, however, is that it excludes any individual for whom a sense of community is constitutive of how she perceives her being.

It should be said that other political philosophies are available and one such is provided by the economists Paul Collier and John Kay in their book Greed is Dead. They argue that that extreme individualism ‘is no longer intellectually tenable’, raising the question as whether it was ever intellectually tenable. It could be argued, of course, that when the luminaries of the Enlightenment suggested that we should use a bit more reason in our lives, they were also promoting the rights of the individual against the oppressive State. Perhaps this was necessary at the time – and the rise of universal human rights still rightly protects the individual in this sense – but perhaps now the dominance of the individual has gone too far and we need to address the imbalance because, as Collier and Kay point out ‘human nature has given us a unique capacity for mutuality’.

Is greed dead?

The importance of mutuality was also stressed by the Russian thinker and anarchist Kniaz Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin in his 1921 work Mutual Aid: A Function of Evolution in which he writes ‘besides the law of Mutual Struggle there is in Nature the law of Mutual Aid, which, for the success of the struggle of life, and especially for the progressive evolution of the species, is far more important than the law of mutual contest’. The us of the word ‘progressive’ here is significant because it sets Kropotkin up in a communitarian tradition that is very different from that of Collier and Kay, as we shall see.

Kniaz Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin

Nevertheless, the authors do agree with Kropotkin that biology ‘far from lending support to the premises of individualism, undermines them’, and they point to myriad organisations that are neither individualistic nor statist including families, clubs and associations as well as , one might add, political parties and trade unions. Adam Smith, primarily a moral philosopher but with his book The Wealth of Nations regarded as the founding father of modern economics, fully acknowledged the complexity of humans and their relationships – and yet he has been trivialised by neoliberals to mean the benefits of the invisible hand of self-interested individuals, a metaphor that he used just once in his otherwise rich and rewarding book.

Adam Smith

Collier and Kay make their position clear when they write: “And we claim that agency – moral, social and economic – is not polarized between the individual and the state, but that society is made up of a rich, interacting web of group activities through which individuals find that fulfilment.” It’s probably fair to say that the authors fit firmly in what might be called the conservative tradition of communitarianism alongside Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’ and Hegel’s ‘civic community’, although they would probably balk at his valorisation of the State. Indeed, their central argument is that there has been too much centralization in the State. Even our much-loved NHS comes in for severe criticism and they argue that health care is ‘well suited to decentralized provision’, although they don’t say how this would happen without health care descending into a postcode lottery .

As we have seen, this is very far from the communitarianism of Kropotkin or, indeed, his fellow anarchist Noam Chomsky who wrote in his book On Anarchism that while he looks forward to a post-capitalist society and the ‘dismantling of state powers’ he also acknowledges that ‘certain aspects of the state system, like the one that makes sure children eat, have to be defended – in fact defended very vigorously’. And Karl Marx explored the notion of communitarianism, which he rooted in our material being in that the ‘sum total of these relationships of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real foundations on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’. Famously in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy he wrote: “It is not the consciousness of men that determine their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Lest we forget, and in response to the individualism of Martin Buber in a previous blog, religion can also deliver a more communitarian approach. In his book The Way of St Benedict the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes: “Or, to pick up our earlier language, it is the unavoidable nearness of others that becomes an extension of ourselves. One of the things we have to grow into unselfconsciousness about is the steady environment of others.”

St Benedict

One of the most appealing aspects of communitarianism, then, is that it appeals to thinkers across the political, moral and religious spectrum. And one of the most appealing aspects of Greed is Dead, at least for Salisbury Democracy Alliance, is that their decentralizing communitarianism leads them to regard Citizens’ Assemblies as being an ‘interesting innovation in democratic practice’.

What needs to be stressed in all of this, however, is that communitarians are not advocating that the collective should crush the individual but, rather, that given sympathetic conditions the individual, properly understood, emerges out of the collective, is shaped by the latter but, in turn, given the opportunity, helps to shape the collective. As Collier and Kay write, it is through the collective that individuals find their fulfilment.


To ambiguity and beyond!

I and Thou was a concept introduced by a German theologian, Martin Buber in his book ‘Ich und Du’ which roughly means I and Thou. Buber believes that these two basic word pairs are essential to understanding how one responds or communicates to another.

HOW the collective emerges out of the individual or how the individual emerges out of the community are questions that go to the heart of modern society. Of course, two possible solutions are either that there is no such thing as community or that there is no such thing as the individual. But for the purposes of this blog we will assume that both exist and attempt to work out how, if at all, the individual becomes part of the collective without losing an ethical perspective.

In I and Thou Martin Buber, as the title of his book implies, starts with the individual. For him the social means ‘the community that is built up out of relation’ but he is aware of the problem that involves the ‘collection of human units that do not know relation – modern man’s palpable condition of lack of relation’. Bearing in mind that this book was written in the 1930s, one wonders what Buber would think about today’s atomized society. Be that as it may, Buber writes: “Then we find only the one flow I to Thou unending, to one boundless flow of the real life.” But then Buber argues that the ‘religious man stands as a single, isolated, separated being before God, since he has also gone beyond the state of the moral man, who is still involved in duty and obligation to the world’. The moral man is ‘still burdened with responsibility for the action of those who act’. Here Buber becomes somewhat opaque as he argues at the same time that although the individual is not ‘freed from responsibility’ he has nevertheless ‘abolished moral judgements for ever’.

Martin Buber

If this sounds familiar it may be because Buber was influenced by Soren Kierkegaard for whom God becomes dispensable if He is drawn into the ethical sphere and will then, eventually, disappear. Interestingly, Buber references Nietzsche and it it’s hard not to draw a parallel with his notion of Beyond Good and Evil, which transfers amorality from God to to a post-God world, a world which morality has no meaning unless it is ruled by the Ubermensch for whom morality means whatever is good or bad for him.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Another profound philosophy of the individual is existentialism, although it is often argued that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were its precursors. Jean-Paul Sartre was acutely aware of the problem that self-creation and individual freedom posed for ethics. He always intended to address this problem after his magnum opus Being and Nothingness but he never did. It was left to his lover Simone de Beauvoir to tackle this problem and she attempted this in her Ethics of Ambiguity in which she claims that it is the essential tensions that we experience in life – the chief of which is that between life and death – that lead to the place where ethics, politics and metaphysics intersect. What this means concretely is that at the very point that we become aware of our own existence we also become aware of sharing it with others so that, for example, ‘I’ cannot ‘will my own freedom without, at the same time, willing the freedom of others’.

The Ethics of Ambiguity

John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice also attempts to extrapolate from the individual to the sort of society that it would choose if it had no idea what its position in society was. But as we have seen in a previous blog he does this in a question-begging sort of way by excluding any kind of communitarian solution in which a communal role is, in part at least, constitutive of the individual’s identity.

It seems, then, that the very notion of ethics is precarious when one starts with the individual. Either it disappears with the appearance of God (Buber and Kierkegaard) or it disappears with the death of God (Nietzsche). Alternatively, it rests in the restless world of ambiguity (de Beauvoir) or begs the question against anyone who proposes a more communitarian approach.

In the next blog we will focus on communitarianism to see if it can do any better and move on from ambiguity.


Long live the Idiot!

OVER the past 30 years or so humanity has been stealthily infantilized as advertisers, powerful lobby groups, thinktanks, governments and social media giants have infiltrated our brains. Whether it’s the relentless pursuit of instant gratification or the echo chambers of Facebook our willingness to surrender our privacy and even the direction of our lives has become truly Kafkaesque.

Ever since Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow we have known that one aspect of our brains involves the two modes of thinking. According to Kahneman: “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little of no effort and no sense of voluntary control” while “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” Use of System 2can help to improve on judgements and counter bias but ‘it is reluctant to do so because it is indolent’ and ‘little can be achieved without considerable effort’. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to realise that the advertisers et al have realised this aspect of our brain and successfully tapped into System 1 while systematically discouraging the use of System 2 so that we crave the instant gratification of buying now and demand constant unnecessary upgrades.

One might be tempted to ask whether any of this matters. Many would argue that the answer is an emphatic YES because it has a direct impact on our freedom, agency and our particular form of representative government. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff traces how the likes of Google suddenly realised that they could bundle up all the waste data that they accumulated and sell it on to whoever would find it useful. It was the psychologist B. K. Skinner who realised the political value of all this when he ‘viewed the creative and often messy conflicts of politics, especially democratic politics, as a source of friction that threatens the rational efficiency of the community as a single, high functioning super-organism’.

It is the serendipitous marriage between neoliberalism and the social media giants, some would argue, that has led to what the philosopher Byung Chul Han calls ‘psychopolitics’ in his book of the same name.

Byung Chul Han

Han describes how neoliberalism ‘makes citizens into consumers’ and how as consumers ‘today’s voters have no real interest in politics – in actively shaping the community’. And participation now amounts to little more than ‘grievance and complaint’ which has given rise to ‘spectator democracy’. Leaving aside the question as to whether we actually have a democracy, rather than what might more accurately described representative government, this combination of neoliberalism and social media means ‘we are entering the age of digital psychopolitics’ which involves ‘passing from passive surveillance to active steering’.

Han points to how Big Data now enables political parties to micro-target voters in the way that, as Channel 4 News recently highlighted, during the 2016 USA election the Trump campaign acquired detailed information on 200 million Americans and were able to target potential Clinton-voting black citizens with adverts designed to dissuade them from voting. In many of these areas the black vote collapsed. He drives the point home when he states that ‘Big Data can even read desires we do not know we harbour’, entering the ‘collective unconscious’ territory of Carl Jung.

So, what, if anything, is to be done? Zuboff argues that we should be the grit in the system, slowing down the smooth transition to a hive society by declaring ‘no more’. Han takes this one step further by urging us to become idiots presumably in the mould of Dostoevsky’s ‘positively beautiful man’ in The Idiot who clashes with the emptiness of his 19th century Russian society. “The idiot is idiosyncratic,” writes Han, setting the idiot in conflict with ‘smart’ devices and their acolytes. “Idiotism stands opposed to the neoliberal power of domination, total communication and total surveillance.”

The Idiot -Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin

The idiosyncratic idiot is nothing to do with the attenuated Homo Economicus of neoliberalism in which the only relationship we have with others is transactional. This is the atomized society which makes it easy for Big Data to isolate and inhabit. Rather, the idiot is the genuine embedded citizen who emerges from his or her social being. It is this individual that will become the grit, that will side with Doug against Kevin Bacon’s annoying EE cypher, will declare ‘no more’ and reclaim Big Data for the people. Long live the Idiot!


The ragged trousered Classicists

The Athenian Agora

Whenever Boris Johnson makes a reference to the Classics he hopes to demonstrate his membership of the intellectual elite. At the same time, however, he also provides evidence of the way that the Classics have been appropriated by the ruling clique. Indeed, it seems as though the Classics are largely confined to expensive private schools and, perhaps, surviving Grammar schools but have been eliminated from vast swathes of State schools as being in some way irrelevant.

But in a remarkable new book by the historians Edith Hall and Henry Stead called A People’s History of Classics it is argued that this was not always the case. The authors write: “Our book refutes wholesale the argument that classical education must be intrinsically elitist or reactionary; it has been the the curriculum of empire but it can be the curriculum of liberation.” It is their contention that it was fear of the rebellious influence of the Classics that led it to be suppressed among the working class. So, while Edmund Burke feared that the ‘pearls of intellectual culture would be besmirched by the swinish masses’, Thomas Hobbes ‘frets that classical literature inspires people to revolutions’.

In the early part of the book the authors show how the Classics helped to construct the identity and ‘psychological experience of substantial groups of working class Britons’, which inspired educational institutions like the Workers’ Educational Association, the Council of Labour Colleges and the Plebs League. But the authors also point out that the Classics have been inspirational for individual members of the working class and that Classical material features in ‘poor people’s expression of class dissatisfaction and frustration, disaffection, anger, deprivation, psychological trauma (even diagnosis of insanity) and dispossession’. Many British radicals were inspired and motivated by the Greeks and Romans between the ‘American and French Revolutions and the collapse of the Chartist movement’. Thomas Paine, author of the Rights of Man, for example, while critical of the use or Classics by the ruling clique, nevertheless thought that a ‘grasp of human history, including the markedly political history and developed secular ethics of ancient Greece and Rome, were essential to modern democrats’ understanding of the past’. And for Paine the Greek philosophers needed to be read ‘because they recommended benevolent moral systems’. In short Hall and Stead claim that the ‘democrats of the 1790s…were immersed in and inspired by ancient philosophers and history read in translation’.

Anyone who has been involved in the trade union movement will know about the influence of the Classics on the multifarious and colourful banners paraded on marches – the Tolpuddle Festival, normally held in July, is a good place to see many of them from all over the country. Indeed, the authors themselves trace the ‘proud and colourful use of figures from classical mythology and history in Trade Union banner art and in emblems of positive self-definition amongst craftspeople’ including the ‘ironies of the intense relationship between mining and the ancient world’.

This is a serious and scholarly work of history designed to liberate the Classics from the ruling clique for ‘progressive and enlightened causes’. “Our book, therefore, is not just about the past, but a rallying cry to modern Britain to support the case for the universal availability in schools of classical civilization and ancient history’.

One of the most obvious examples of how the Classics have influenced working class culture is the remarkable book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by the Irish author Robert Noonan, writing as Robert Tressell, and drawn from his experiences as an underpaid painter and decorator. But at a higher level the book is clearly based on Plato’s allegory of The Cave in The Republic, which is used to explore the idea of workers’ false consciousness.

Plato’s The Cave allegory

Tressell’s book starts: “The house was named ‘The Cave’,” and it is where much of the action takes place. The book essentially adapts Plato’s allegory to analyse the workmen’s ‘sedation by alcohol and unthinking reproduction of the false ideas required to perpetuate their oppression’.

The ancient Greek philosophers were renowned for their clear-sighted take on humanity and, in the case of the Stoics at least, promoted the idea that a ‘decent life is about cultivation of one’s character and concern for other people (and even Nature itself) and it is best enjoyed by way of a proper – but not fanatical – detachment from mere worldly goods,” as Massimo Pigliucci has it in How to be a Stoic. In this sense the Greek philosophers could be seen to counter the extreme individualism of neoliberalism, its insularity and its tendency to turn citizens into consumers. However, it is something of a stretch to conclude that the study of the Classic could have had the sort of revolutionary implications so feared by Hobbes. And it is thin gruel indeed when compared with the red meat of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto in which they declare: “The proletarians have nothing to lost but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”

Marcus Aurelius – Roman Emperor, general and Stoic philosopher, but hardly a revolutionary!

But if Hall and Stead over reach themselves with regard to the revolutionary aspects of the Classics, they make a very good case for bringing classical education into mainstream education and wresting it from the clutches of people like Johnson.


The meaning of life is not 42!

IMAGINE you are on your smart ‘phone (assuming you have one) and someone comes up to you and asks whether you believe in electricity. You might be forgiven for looking askance at this person and assuming that they were mad. But think about this for a moment – 500 years ago Europeans would have been equally nonplussed had they been asked whether they believed in God. It is this sort of insight that marks out A Wonderful LIFE by philosopher and psychology researcher Frank Martela.

God’s presence was everywhere in the life of our ancestors. “Theirs was a world dominated by the supernatural – spirits, demons and magic,” writes Martela. “The existence of God and spirits wasn’t a question of belief but an immediate certainty.” Just like electricity is today. However, if you ask many people about God now it is unlikely to elicit quite the same degree of certainty. It is often thought that people began to seriously question the meaning of life after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But the findings of geologists had been undermining the veracity of the Bible for years and as early as 1834 the essayist, satirist and historian Thomas Carlyle is thought to be the first person in the English speaking world to coin the term ‘meaning of life’ in his extraordinary book Sartor Resartus (meaning tailor re-tailored). Indeed, Carlyle makes his protagonist Herr Teufelsdrockh question everything. “Doubt had darkened into Unbelief,” says he; “shade after shade goes grimly over your soul till you have the fixed, starless, Tartarean black.” Today, we might call this an existential crisis and in fact Soren Kierkegaard, often thought of as a forerunner of existentialism, was also active that this time.

Soren Kierkegaard

For Martela the ‘combination of losing touch with religion through the rise of the scientific world view plus the Romantic notion that, to truly live, you must experience your life as highly meaningful, formed a perfect storm that gave rise to the concept of the existential crisis and conditions endemic to our modern culture today, a society where the lack of meaningfulness can become all-consuming’. The rise of the cult of the individual also contributed to the search for meaning. The sense of the autonomous individual, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, as Martela notes, ‘the whole idea of a private inner self beyond one’s public self started to appear in the literature only from the 16th century onwards’.

According to Martela, what we actually need to do to make sense of all this is to shift from the ‘meaning of life’ which is ‘about something beyond life in question justifying its meaningfulness’ to ‘meaning in life’. And once you make that move then you find that you already have ‘many relationships, experiences, and emotions in your life that already feel meaningful to you regardless of a rational explanation as to why’. And it’s not Sartre that expresses this but Simone de Beauvoir who emphasises that we’re ‘already situated’. In an introduction to Beauvoir’s Introduction to an Ethics of Ambiguity it is claimed that she ’emphasises the inter-subjective dimensions of existence’ and argues that ‘I cannot will my own freedom without, at the same time, willing the freedom of others’, echoing Kant’s categorical imperative.

From all this Martela identifies ‘autonomy, competence, relatedness, and benevolence’ as the key factors in what makes for a meaningful life. These are Ok as far as they go. However, it could be argued , as Daniel Dennett does in From Bacteria to Bach and Back that many animals display competence but it’s the injection of comprehension that introduces consciousness, which is a central feature of humanity if not exclusive to it. Again ‘relatedness’ is a thin word for what might better be described as our social being. Indeed, for the sadly recently deceased Rutger Bregman in Human Kind – A Hopeful History our social being was our super-power over the more individualistic Neanderthals whose superior intelligence could not spread knowledge as widely and as quickly as it could by the more social Homo Sapiens. It is something that Martela does at least recognise in passing when he writes that ‘we need to work together to strengthen the forms of community available to us’. The word ‘benevolence’ is too vague a concept which might better described as altruism which some evolutionary biologists – including Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene – argue that altruism forms part of our genetic make-up, even if it competes with our more ego-centric traits.

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy a super computer designed to find the answer to the meaning of life eventually replies ‘forty-two’. As Martela says the answer points to the ridiculousness of the question itself.

Clearly there are still many people who do draw meaning from a higher authority but for those that don’t then, equally clearly, finding meaning in life – rather than of life – is a more fruitful quest. But there is a danger that starting from the perspective of the individual and working from there to inter-subjectivity is starting from the wrong end. Contrary to our current obsession with the individual – exemplified by the metaphysical Homo Economicus – it could be argued that our meaning starts with our social being and the problem then becomes how we create the conditions in which the full potential of the autonomous citizen can be realised as it emerges from the collective – without abandoning the latter.


What is the Self?

IT’S one of those questions that has intrigued philosophers for centuries. Once you have stripped away things like your name, address and occupation etc what is left? Is there a core essence that is unmistakably the Self? Or, as some Buddhists say, is the Self an illusion we have to cure ourselves of? As Stephen Batchelor writes in Buddhism Without Beliefs: “There is no essential me that exists apart from this unique configuration of biological and cultural processes.” When Batchelor searches for his Self in meditation ‘I find it is like trying to catch my own shadow’ rather like Gilbert Ryles’ ‘ghost in the machine’, which he uses in The Concept of Mind to ridicule Descartes. Nevertheless, Batchelor also concedes that even if the Self is not something ‘neither is it nothing…It is simply ungraspable, unfindable’.

The ghost in the machine

Notions of the Self certainly drift into themes revolving uneasily around dualism of the material and the immaterial – and when the Self is associated with the latter it sounds something like a soul. Not so for materialist Galen Strawson in The Subject of Experience. For him the Self is a ‘conscious subject of experience’, which most certainly does not involve ‘some sort of belief in the immaterial soul, or in life after death’. He adds: “Philosophical materialists who believe, as I do, that we are wholly physical beings, and that the theory of evolution by natural selection is true, and that animal consciousness of the sort with which we are familiar evolved by purely physical natural processes on a planet where no such consciousness previously existed, have this sense of the mental as strongly as anyone else.” But for him the mental self is ‘a thing or entity, in some robust sense’. What is interesting about Strawson is that not only is he a materialist in a field that is dominated by immaterialists, he also argues that ‘one can have a full sense of the single mental self at any given time without thinking of the self as something that has long-term continuity’, a view that certainly flies in the face of mainstream thought in which continuity of something, whether it be body or mental, is often thought to be vital. Strawson can even accommodate Buddhist thought. “I believe the Buddhists have the truth when they deny the existence of a persisting mental self, in the human case, and nearly all of those who want there to be a self want it to be a persisting self.” At the same time he believes the famous metaphor of the ‘stream of consciousness’, first proposed by William James in The Principles of Psychology, is false. In contrast Strawson argues that the ‘phenomenal form of our consciousness is that of a gappy series of eruptions of consciousness as if from a substrate of non-consciousness’.

What does it mean to have a word with yourself?

For Strawson, who uses his own experiences of meditation to inform his argument, selves exist as ‘subjects of experience that are single mental things’ and he does agree with James when he writes that ‘the same brain may sub-serve many conscious selves’ in what Strawson likens to a string of pearls. It has to be said, as Strawson acknowledges, that this view of the Self may not be sufficient for many people who want there to be a Self. It is also frighteningly fragile: “If, finally, someone says that any sense of the self as a thing may dissolve in the self-awareness of meditation, I will agree, and reply that in that case self-experience, of the kind that is at present of concern will also have dissolved (this being, perhaps, after all the aim of meditation).” It could be argued, however, that it is difficult to reconcile this fragility with Strawson’s claim that the Self or, as he prefers to put it, the ‘subject of experience’, is a ‘physical object’ and that even if it ‘may be short-lived…it is nonetheless real, and it is as much a physical object as any piano’. The obvious objection to make is that pianos are not so easily dissolved.

But having made the case for the transience of the Self, Strawson then argues that one’s sense of permanence or transience may, after all, be psychological with some Diachronic people having a strong sense of Self over time while Episodics – like Strawson himself – do not. At the same time, however, he floats the idea that we might exist on a spectrum between the Diachronic and Episodic.

Are you Episodic of Diachronic?

There is much more in this book to make one ponder and puzzle, including an argument against the common claim that we are nothing but a narrative of ourselves that we create for and of ourselves. For Strawson ‘we live beyond any tales that we happen to enact’ and he believes that story-telling in this sense can lead to an ‘inauthentic view of ourselves’. The correct position is one of ‘discovery, not creation or constitution’, although one might wonder whether there is much to discover if the subject of experience can be dissolved so easily like a will of the wisp. And it’s interesting also that although Strawson is not convinced by the narrative view of the Self he never tackles the problem of infinite regression of the story-telling view. After all, if there is a narrative there must be a narrator…and so on.

But it is the shifting nature of the subject of experience which is at once a robust physical object and a fragile entity that makes one feel most queasy. It is a bit like Schrodinger’s cat that is both alive and dead until it is observed. Under Strawson the Self becomes both subject and object and seems to disappear in a puff of its own logic as Douglas Adams says somewhere in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


The dark night of Buddhism

IT’S rare for anyone to look at the dark side of Buddhism. We all know about the violence that can be engendered by various religions but people disillusioned by the great monotheistic religions often turn to what they perceive to be the the gentler vision of Buddhism. Indeed, there are some people, including Stephen Batchelor – author of Buddhism Without Faith – who argue that Buddhism isn’t even a religion and, rather, should be thought of as a guide for life. So, how are we to account for the way Buddhists treated the the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar?

There have also been well documented incidents during which individuals have appeared to experience severe mental illness particularly after periods of intensive meditations in retreats. In their book The Buddha Pill Doctors Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm unearth evidence that shows that many people can experience at least one negative effect – and a significant number who have ‘profoundly adverse effects’ following retreats. One particularly troubling case involved a psychiatrist called Dr Russell Razzaque who found himself ‘descending into a deeply meditative state; I somehow travelled through the sensations of my body and the thoughts in my mind to a space of sheer nothingness that felt, at the same time, like it was somehow the womb of everything’. Although he initially regarded this as a blissful state, things deteriorated in the following days as he was being pulled in the opposite direction into a manic state. Eventually, he managed to stay grounded, although as the authors point out, most people who meditate are not experts in psychiatric diagnosis.

According to the authors, western practitioners are ‘aware that not all is plain sailing with meditation – they have even named the emotional difficulties that can arise from their meditative practice as the ‘dark night’. Part of the problem seems to be the collapse of the ‘narrative of the self’ (the notion that the self is a narrative is itself contested, which will be explored in the next blog), which can result in a ‘sense of vertigo rather than blissful realization of the emptiness of the self’. And research has shown that adverse effects are not always confined to intensive retreats.

And then we come to the knockout punch – ‘meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing’. They add: “It’s primary purpose was much more radical – to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.” This is not how we are encouraged to see meditation in the West where ‘meditation has been revamped as a natural pill that will quieten your mind and make you happier’.

Of course, in the wider context Buddhism is often regarded as being a peaceful practice and, like the early Christians, as a turn away from violence. “But a cursory glance at the news broadcasts about Buddhist countries challenges this peaceful image,” the writers observe. And this brings us back to the question at the beginning of this blog about the treatment of the Rohingya. Just as Christianity developed the notion of the Just War so Buddhism developed ‘its own theory of compassionate killing‘. In a bizarre twist in Buddhist thought – which Batchelor might argue coincided with it becoming seen as a religion – one consequence the idea of emotional indifference and selflessness is that practitioners are not ‘morally responsible for for their actions because they act without self-interest’. In other words ‘without clear ethical rules that very spiritual selflessness can serve all kinds of ill purposes’, as happened with Japanese Buddhism during World War Two.

According to Zen priest and historian Brian Victoria the ‘Japanese military used Zen Buddhist ideas and meditation techniques’ to support the war. He shows how Buddhist priests regarded ‘warfare and killing’ as ‘manifestations of Buddhist compassion, selflessness and dedication to the Japanese emperor’. There is literally nothing to lose in killing or dying once you realize the ’emptiness of the self’, an idea that becomes the equivalent promise of eternal life in religions like Islam and Christianity.

It is fair to say that all of this comes as a shock to anyone sympathetic to Buddhism and meditation, including the authors of the the Buddha Pill. But they are not about to dispense with meditation. They write: “Perhaps meditation was never supposed to be more than a tool to help with self knowledge; one that could never be divorced from a strong ethical grounding, who we are and the world we live in’. And as Batchelor writes: “A culture of awakening cannot exist independently of the specific social, religious, artistic, and ethnic cultures in which it is embedded.”

Furthermore, the authors write of meditation: “If we admit its frailties and limits, that it takes other things for the techniques to make real positive change – the right intentions, a good teacher and moral framing – they can still prove effective engines of personal change.”

All of which puts the Western appropriation of meditation – what Ron Purser dismisses as McMindfulness – and its decoupling from any moral and political context under severe scrutiny. It’s the idea of self-optimizing and using mindfulness as a way of helping us to cope with the stresses of modern life without tackling the socio-political causes of that stress – including the atomization of society – that needs to be addressed by the mindful community. Social change requires collective action, not meditation, which should, it could be argued, be put to use to sustain that action.


The knight of faith

“Do the gods love holiness because it is holy, or is it holy because they love it?” So asked Socrates as reported by Plato in the Euthyphron. It’s a deceptively simple question but one that has had wide-ranging ramifications down the millennia and remains one of the most important ever asked. For if the answer to the first part of the question is ‘yes’, then the possibility arises that the holy – or as we might say today, the ‘good’ – is not dependent on the gods, or God, and is, therefore, independently accessible to humanity. If, however, the answer to the second part of the question is ‘yes’ it means that whatever God loves is good and humanity has no idea what the good is – and, perhaps, neither does God. Morality, as we know it, disappears.


Although he doesn’t formally acknowledge it, the Euthyphron question courses through Soren Kierkegaard book Fear and Trembling, which he wrote under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio. The central premise in this beautifully written book is what Kierkegaard calls the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.

Soren Kierkegaard

What this means is an ethics that eschews any sense of consequentialist normative theories like Utilitarianism. In fact Kierkegaard actually sets himself up in opposition to Fredrich Hegel for whom the ethical life involves behaviour that is moral only when it adds to the good of society. But presumably even Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is also unacceptable. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant writes ‘act only in accordance with that maxim which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’. Kant is often categorized as being a non-consequentialist but in Kierkegaard’s eyes the categorical imperative still retains a teleological element.

To make his argument Kierkegaard chooses the extraordinary story of Abraham in which God tests him by demanding that he sacrifices his much-loved son Isaac, as told in Genesis 22.

Abraham’s hand is stayed at the last minute

Abraham’s faith is such that he is moved to carry out the order without question only to have his hand stayed at the last minute by an Angel, allowing the son and father to return home unscathed.

For Kierkegaard this is the ultimate test of what he calls the knight of faith. It’s the second of two moves the first of which he calls the knight of resignation who can find ‘peace and repose’ in retiring from life, as in a monastery.

The knight of resignation

But the knight of faith takes the next step because his faith in God is absolute. This faith remains constant even if, unlike the story in Genesis, the Angel does not intervene. Kierkegaard writes: “Let us go further. We let Isaac actually be sacrificed. Abraham had faith…God could give him a new Isaac, bring the sacrificial offer back to life. He believed in the strength of the absurd, for all human calculations had long since been suspended.” At the heart of this is the paradox ‘that the single individual is higher than the universal though in such a way be it noted…that having been in the universal the single individual now sets himself up apart as the particular above the universal’. One might be forgiven for seeing in this the religious version of Nietzsche’s ubermensch.

So, what are we to make of all this? The Swedish philosopher Martin Hagglund in his This Life – Why Mortality Makes us Free argues that to say, as some do, that Kierkegaard ‘has found a way to combine devotion to God with devotion to finite life’ rings hollow because the ‘double movement of religious faith actually denies the experience of finitude by precluding the experience of irrevocable loss’. Hagglund contrasts this with what he calls ‘secular faith’ in which every time ‘you care for someone who may be lost or leave you behind, every time you devote yourself to a cause whose fate is uncertain you perform an act of secular faith’. On the other hand if there is a ‘God for whom everything is possible, then anything can be permitted, even the killing of your own child for no other reason other than God’s command’, because even in death, as Kierkegaard acknowledges, Isaac will be returned to him.

Writing in the latest edition of Philosophy Now Roger Caldwell goes further when he writes that it ‘is not difficult to find passages in his writings to make one suspect he is somewhat unbalanced’. In all of this it is astonishing that the Euthyphron question is not mentioned, although Caldwell comes closest when he writes that ‘if it is possible for divine commands to take precedence over human ethics, then faith is higher than morality’. Indeed, it could be argued, as previously suggested, that if you answer in the positive to the second part of the question then morality itself vanishes for humanity – and for God. And there is a dark symmetry here because according to Clare Carlisle in her biography Philosopher of the Heart, Kierkegaard warned in Fear and Trembling that ‘once God is absorbed into the ethical sphere he will become dispensable, and eventually disappear altogether’. So, the stark choice is between morality and God. For those who don’t believe in God, of course, there is no choice, but it does remain for believers. One of Kierkegaard’s aims in the book is to draw a distinction between what he regarded as dead Christianity, where people merely go through the motions of faith, and his live Christianity as exemplified by Abraham. For most Christians, one suspects, the move to the knight of faith is a step too far and for atheists and agnostics it’s a very good reason not to believe in God.


Back to the commons!

FOR more than 50 years the idea of commonly owned land has been blighted by Garret Hardin in his hugely influential article The Tragedy of the Commons. Hardin claimed that environmental disaster would ensue if land was in common ownership as the the population grew because he assumed that individuals would only think of their short-term gain rather than the long-term collective benefits.

But what if he was wrong? There are two fundamental assumptions that Hardin makes which skew his conclusion. The first is that the most fundamental starting point is the individual; and the second is that altruism forms no part of our genetic make-up. As a result, as Tine De Moor makes clear in her book The Dilemma of the Commoners, he ‘assumed that individuals would be unable to communicate and organize to prevent over-harvesting of the resources’. As she also points out he also assumes that ‘human nature is such that greed and selfishness will always lead to free-riding and, subsequently, excessive exploitation’. And she adds: “Although since its publication the metaphor ‘the tragedy of the commons’ has been extremely popular in various scientific disciplines and with policy-makers, many researchers have given proof of the opposite: individuals, commoners, and others are capable of preventing free-riding by institution building.”

Like many others De Moor paddles her canoe against a torrent of individualistic neoliberal ideology. It could be argued, in contrast, that we are actually social beings – indeed some argue that our sociability was Homo Sapiens’s big advantage over the Neanderthals, who were probably more intelligent than us but less social and, therefore, less able to spread innovations. If this is true then neoliberalism has got it the wrong way round. The problem is not how a fully formed individuated consciousness becomes a social being – if that is indeed an aim of neoliberalism – but how social beings become a fully formed individuated consciousness. As De Moor says individualism and collectivism are not incompatible – ‘both are part of the emancipation of the individual: first from family ties and later from other collectivities’ she writes, tellingly starting with the collective and, crucially, not abandoning that collective in the forging of the individual. De Moor outlines a brief history of the rise of the commons and guilds from 1000AD. Interestingly, although the commons sought to protect itself against the vagaries of the market, that does not mean that they were against the market itself – indeed, many also engaged with the market. Of course, common land continued up until the infamous enclosures began during the 16th century and it is estimated by J. L. and Barbara Hammond in The Village Labourer that even by 1685 three fifths of all cultivated land in England was still ‘farmed on the old common-field system’.

To make her case more fully De Moor spends a considerable amount of time analysing the history of the commons in Florence between 1500 and 1850 and concludes that collectively-owned commons could and should play a role in modern society alongside the Market and the State. “It is peculiar,” she writes “that people believe the market can solve all kinds of problems, and that citizens cannot and do not deserve the same level of trust given to market institutions.” As part of this diversification, writes De Moor, the ‘biggest challenge, and the greatest potential, lies in the dialogue that needs to be developed between government and civil institutions’. And of course the co-operation in the sense that she means it can work equally well with modern day service and industrial economies as well as common ownership of land for cultivation. As Joshua Greene writes in Moral Tribes our natural tendency towards co-operation ‘evolved for the amoral purpose of successful competition’. He continues: “And yet somehow we, with our overgrown primate brains, can grasp the abstract principles behind nature’s machines and make them our own.”

It can seem hopelessly idealistic in today’s attenuated social and political life to call for something different, either in the form of De Moor’s collectives or the communities of resistance that featured in a previous blog. But we should remember that things can change very quickly. The founders of neoliberalism like Hayek and Mises were outriders for years until the political door was pushed open with the emergence of Thatcher and Reagan. Salisbury Democracy Alliance can’t do much at a regional or national level to effect change, but it can exert influence on the local political scene. Deliberative Democracy can work well in conjunction with local collectives in a way that rebalances the relationship between the individual and the community while lessening the stranglehold of the ‘elective dictatorship’ of representative government.


Is this the end for Original Sin?

Original Sin

ARE humans fundamentally good or bad? It’s a question that runs through the history of human thought. According to Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The two philosophers who perhaps best represent the pessimistic view and the optimistic are, respectively, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacque Rousseau.

According to Rutger Bregman in his new book Humankind, these two thinkers ‘continue to be pitted against each other in the philosophical boxing ring’. Their respective positions go to the heart of the deep divide. And indeed, Bregman thinks that the ramifications are far-reaching embracing harsher ‘punishments versus better social services, reform school versus art school, top-down management versus empowered teams, old-fashioned breadwinners versus baby-toting dads – take just about any debate you can think of and it goes back, in some way, to the opposition between Hobbes and Rousseau’. This is big claim and one to which followers of Karl Marx and Adam Smith might raise an eyebrow or two. After all it could be argued that as important as the ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ is the conflict between individualism and communitarianism, but with that caveat in place, it’s difficult not to recognise the importance of human nature.

Thomas Hobbes

For Thomas Hobbes human ‘life in that state of nature was, in his words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because humans “are driven by fear” leaving us in a “condition of war of all against all”,’ writes Bregman. But fear not because chaos ‘can be tamed and peace established if we all just agree to relinquish our liberty’ into the hands of a ‘solitary sovereign’ whom he dubs the Leviathan – the name that also graces his magnum opus (as a matter of interest Hobbes was born near Malmesbury and there is an early edition of The Leviathan in the town’s museum). Bregman characterizes this position as: “Give us power, or all is lost.” It is civilization that is our saviour from brute nature. The idea that humanity is fundamentally bad is also contained within the notion of Original Sin which, regardless of whether you are Christian or not, is embedded in much of Western culture and can, perhaps, be observed with chilling effect in the words of the traditional Baptism service.

Jean-Jacque Rousseau

Rousseau, on the other hand, takes a completely opposite view. For him we are naturally good in a state of nature and it is only the institutions of civilization that warp that natural goodness. He argues that ‘civil society is not a blessing, but a curse’. Rousseau understood that ‘man is naturally good, and that it is from these institutions alone that man becomes wicked’. In contrast to Hobbes, writes Bregman, Rousseau is saying: “Give us liberty, or all is lost.”

The conflict between good and evil.

Bregman is in no doubt that Rousseau is right. For him for most of human history we ‘inhabited an egalitarian world without kings or aristocrats, presidents or CEOs’, and if anyone got a bit uppity they were quickly swatted by the community. But according to Bregman problems began about 10,000 years ago. “From the moment we began settling in one place and amassing private property, our group instinct was no longer innocuous. Combined with scarcity and hierarchy it became downright toxic. And once leaders began raising armies to do their bidding there was no stopping the corruptive effects of power,” he writes, acknowledging at the same time the importance of community attachments in countering this process.

The problem is that Hobbes won the argument, ably assisted as we have seen at least in the West by Original Sin. And of course Bregman has some work to do to convince us that Rousseau was right. What about William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? What about the infamous psychological experiment by Stanley Milgrim during which 65 per cent of volunteers gave what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to ‘learners’ who got memory tests wrong? The experiment was immortalized in the book Obedience to Authority and helped to explain everything from the holocaust to the supposed veneer of civilization and the justification of Hobbes. According to Bregman, however, a more detailed examination of the shock treatment experiment shows how resistant the guinea pigs were to obeying the orders. Bregman argues that ‘evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out’ particularly if, as in the case of the shock treatment exercise, ‘they think they are being evil for the greater good’. He brings the same argument to bear on the perpetrators of the holocaust, particularly Adolf Eichmann who was characterized by Hannah Arendt as the epitome of the ‘banality of evil’. For Bregman, however, he believes that Eichmann, and others like him, didn’t do what they did because they wanted to do evil but because they thought they were doing the right thing, they thought they were doing good, however misguided they were (it should be said here that this is a hugely simplified account of his argument).

There is an occasional whiff of confirmation bias in Humankind because Bregman is so committed to his thesis. But, refreshingly, he is well aware of this problem and does his best to eliminate it. On the other hand he is paddling heroically against a tide of human thought that simply assumes that Hobbes was right. And to be clear Bregman is not arguing that we should all abandon civilization and become hunter gatherers. He acknowledges that things have become better in at least some parts of the world over the past 200 years, even if there has been a regression in recent years. In the end his claim is remarkably simple – that most people are pretty decent most of the time and he finishes with an optimistic rallying cry: “So be realistic. Be courageous. Be true to your nature and offer your trust. Do good in broad daylight and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. You may be dismissed as gullible and naïve at first. But remember, what’s naïve today may be common sense tomorrow.” Oh, and don’t watch the news!


Communities of resistance!

LOCALISM was a buzzword not so long ago but then it ran into the sand – along with the Big Society – as the Coalition hollowed out the very local services and political institutions that might have made it work. Ironically, the extreme localism of the individual led to the atomization of local society and a diminishing of, or perhaps further entrenchment of, civic disengagement. But if there is one thing we have learned from the pandemic it’s that many people have rushed to help others in need. Admittedly, this emergence of compassion was somewhat undermined by the panic-buying in supermarkets as the magnitude of Covid-19 hit home, but that was relatively short-lived while the outburst of compassion has remained.

So, is there a way that we can both understand what’s been going on and build on it while starting to break down the hegemony of self-centred individualism so beloved by neoliberal apologists? Well, a relatively new phenomenon called liberation psychology seems to be promising. In their book Towards Psychologies of Liberation Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman take a multi-disciplinary approach to psychology that breaks out of isolated encounters between patient and psychotherapist and bring into the heart of local communities the possibility of social and psychological emancipation.

The authors argue that because of its ‘scientific orientation much of mainstream psychology has emerged as a search for universals, for norms of emotional life and behaviour, and for modes of treatment for individuals who deviate from those norms’. They add: “Rather than searching for stereotypical norms, liberation psychologies place stress on identifying, supporting, and nurturing the psychological attempt of individuals and groups alike to re-author their own sense of identity.” The process often starts in small groups that finds new ways of expressing themselves which then seep out into the wider culture and ‘begins to affect community discourses’. “We have increasingly understood the needed healing potential of family, small groups, and community-based dialogical approaches to psychological well-being.” The authors refer to what they call ‘engaged Buddhism’ in which the ‘awakening of individuals is linked to the awakening of communities’ in that ‘without social liberation, personal liberation is limited, and vice versa’ – remarks which resonate with the previous article on this blog.

While Watkins and Shulman acknowledge that there is a long history of activist organization standing against oppression, the atomization of people – particularly in some Western countries – has led to the rise of the ‘bystander’ who retreats into a ‘focus on the personal and a pursuit of happiness carried out within a very narrow range of life with family and friends’ and for people ‘raised in educational systems that stress individualism, it has become difficult to formulate ideas about the way one’s own social environment and those of others affects one’s well-being’. In a telling phrase that rings true about our own society, the authors write: “Psychically, being a bystander to injustice and violence breeds disconnection, passivity, fatalism, a sense of futility, and failures in empathetic connection.”

If all this sounds familiar, then it could be because it chimes with the kind of society encouraged and championed by neoliberalism with its mythical champion Homo Economicus in which the only relationship between individuals is assumed to be self-interested and transactional, empty of compassion and altruism.

The forces driving this infantilization and atomization are enormous but fortunately there is a way out. As Prof Peter Kinderman writes in The New Laws of Psychology, while we are shaped by the laws of physics and social circumstances, we are also ‘shaped by thought’ and if we ‘can understand why we think what we think, we can change what we think’ while at the same time fighting the debilitating impact of poverty and inequality.

Watkins and Shulman write about the process of healing the damage caused by extreme atomization in a way that begins to build bridges between the isolated individual and community. “One can begin practices of democracy that allow participation in public dialogue and the opening of spaces for…difference and disagreement.” They write about creating intermediate places ‘between private identities and large scale institutions’ with what they call ‘communities of resistance’. “This is both for those whose lives have been disrupted by various forms of oppression and collective trauma as well as for many of the relatively affluent who have been taught to see themselves within a paradigm of individualism.”

It is often major disruptions in society like war, transformative revolution, state collapse and pandemics that generate change. We have already seen how the pandemic has prompted a flourishing of solidarity and compassion in a way that suggests that it is not individualism that underpins our society but our social being. Scratch the service and you don’t get The Lord of the Flies but our innate sociability and other-regarding traits. In Salisbury we already have two democracy cafés which provide the sort of liminal space or safe haven where participants are encouraged to listen and respect others in mutual dialogue without having to try to ‘win’ their arguments. Salisbury Democracy Alliance – the umbrella organisation that organises the cafés – also has a vision for creating a Citizens’ Jury in the city in which someone living in The Close might be rubbing shoulders with someone living in The Friary as they deliberate about a local issue and come up with recommendations for local councils. Perhaps the pandemic and organisations like the Alliance can create the sort of conditions that encourage a shift away from the bystander towards more critically engaged and compassionate citizens.


Don’t just stand there, sit down! – 2

Mindfulness has been largely appropriated by the Western cult of the individual and science-led therapeutic interventions. The concern is that mindfulness acts as a kind of opiate of the people that helps you cope with the stresses of modern life, while leaving the causes – extreme individualism – untouched. However, the question asked in the previous blog was ‘is mindfulness an inherently quietist activity?’ If it is then no amount of mindfulness will help to bring about social change.

There seems to be two approaches to responding this question. One starts from what might be called our natural social being and works inwards to meditation. The other starts the other way round. Ronald Purser takes the first course. In McMindfulness he argues for what he calls social mindfulness. “Revolutionary mindfulness neither fetishizes the present moment nor dispenses with judgement,” he writes. “Rather, it embraces the past and the future in conscious pursuit of social change.” He makes the point that liberation is a ‘systemic process’ that cannot ‘rely on individual methods’. Mindfulness, in Purser’s sense, means ‘combining resistance with meditative practices’. The problem with this position is that does not answer our question as to whether mindfulness in itself is or is not an inherently quietist activity. But then he begins to hint at an answer to that question when her argues that mindfulness is ‘sometimes a solitary process, it isn’t a retreat from the outside world’. And he adds: “Instead, it can deepen our sense of connection, provided we see beyond clinging to the illusory separateness of the self…Truly revolutionary mindfulness is non-dual: it’s transformative strength is undivided, owned by no-one. By harnessing this together, we can seek the liberation of all sentient beings.”

This is strong stuff and may be it is asking mindfulness to do too much of the heavy-lifting. But he does point to one of the most important aspects of the practice that harks back to Buddhism and engages with the nature of the self. According to Buddhism the self doesn’t exist and the idea that it does is an illusion or a construct. And once you have banished the self, then it’s a short step to transcending the self and ‘if you transcend the perspective of the self, any self, and view things from nowhere in particular essence disappears, along with the feelings that created it in the first place’, writes Robert Wright in Why Buddhism is True. He borrows the term from the American philosopher Thomas Nagel who explores the question of objective morality in The View from Nowhere for a non-Buddhist perspective.

The disappearing self

Individualism is transformed into individuation which unites the particular and the no-where. There are echoes of this in the work of Carl Jung as he writes about the union of the conscious and unconscious. “I have therefore called the union of opposites the ‘transcendent function’,” he writes in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.

Stephen Batchelor in Buddhism Without Beliefs is less radical than Purser but he is equally adamant about the transformative power of mindfulness or, as he prefers to call it, dharma practice. Starting from the opposite direction from Purser – that is from the inner world – Batchelor then moves to the outer. For him dharma practice cannot be separated from its embedded culture. He writes: “A culture of awakening cannot exist independently of the specific social, religious, artistic, and ethnic culture in which it is embedded.” For him dharma practice in itself and properly understood is far from being neutral. Instead, community ‘is the living link between individuation and social engagement’. In a way, then, Batchelor and Purser, coming from opposite directions, seem to meet in the middle with the rise of social mindfulness, which is far from the sort of quietism represented by Western mindfulness as it is subsumed into the cult of the individual.

But how could social mindfulness play out in and change the foundations of individualism? One way would be to massively increase training in mindfulness so that there is a ‘sustained uplift in the average level of mindfulness across the UK population as a whole’, writes Dan Nixon in his paper The value of awareness: Could mindfulness underpin a more adaptable and sustainable economy? One of Nixon’s arguments suggest that an ‘increase in the aggregate level of mindfulness…would likely lead to a less impulsive consumption’ leading to a ‘lower long-run rate of consumption growth’ and therefore a more sustainable and human-centred economy’. A similar point is made by Batchelor when he writes that mindfulness might help to ‘create a framework or a structure in which we can move forward in ways that are not in the service of commodification but in the service of human well-being, and human sanity’.

In Compass’s new paper Political Mindfulness Mike Rustin suggests another way that we can create social mindfulness at a local level. In Living with Uncertainties he writes of the importance of ‘reflective spaces for both individuals and institutions and broader conceptions of mindfulness’. This an intriguing suggestion because it raises the possibility that the democracy democracies that started in Salisbury and spread to Oxford and Southampton, provide just such ‘reflective spaces’. But that is something that the next article on this blog with investigate together with the idea of communities of resistance. For now we have just begun to see how mindfulness can help to generate social change, which if true means that, at the very least, it is not inherently quietist.


Don’t just stand there, sit down! – 1

The Buddha

MINDFULNESS is everywhere. There are online courses, meditation classes, it’s been co-opted by the NHS, it’s in schools, the military and corporations. Mindfulness artifacts from meditation mats to amulets that are supposed to aid the mindful experience are hugely popular – and the mindfulness industry is worth billions of pounds a year. There is an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme run by groups like the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre. There is even a cross-party Parliamentary mindfulness group.

At some point, however, many practitioners may well ask themselves that that’s all well and good – but is mindfulness more than just a private activity or does it have wider social implications? More to the point, is mindfulness an inherently quietist activity. If it is, then no amount of mindfulness practice will help to bring about social change. Even worse, it is ripe for appropriation of the dominant ideology – and it is this concern that is gripping some people in certain corners.

The controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek is definitely in that corner. In From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism he writes that Western Buddhism ‘enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw’. While mindfulness emerged from Buddhism, in the West it has been stripped of its spiritual and ethical basis enabling a kind of quietism much appreciated by the corporations. This is highlighted by a witness in David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, who recalls: “The mindfulness seminars were even worse. They attempted to reduce the unfathomable beauty and stupefying sadness of the human experience into the raw physicality of breathing, eating, and shitting. Breathe mindfully. Eat mindfully. Shit mindfully, and you can be successful in business.” One can imagine someone who is unhappy with their low wages and working conditions being despatched on a mindfulness course in order to become more ‘mindful’ about her plight in much the same way as people are sent on anger management courses.

Ronald E. Purser is no doubt either that this neutering of mindfulness is a kind of opiate of the people. In McMindfulness he draws a parallel, as the title suggests, between the universalising one-restaurant fits all model and the kind of therapeutic interventions of the type deployed by the NHS. He writes: “Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it.” And again: “What remains is a tool of self-discipline disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems.” He adds: “Reducing suffering is a noble aim and it should be encouraged. But to do this effectively, teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress also has societal causes.” The guru of this kind of mindfulness and inventor of the MBSR model is Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the bestseller Wherever You Go, There You Are in which he claims that meditation ‘means cultivating a non-judging attitude toward what comes up in the mind, come what may’, although he also writes that this does not mean that you ‘cease knowing how to act or behave responsibly in society, or that anything anybody does is okay’.

However, Purser argues that Kabat-Zinn puts too much stress on the ‘present’ or the ‘now’. “Fetishizing present experience runs the risk of reducing mindfulness to a pop philosophy that relishes an amoral immediacy of being, undermining critical forethought and ethical awareness of the consequentiality of past and future actions.”

In recent years the mindfulness community has begun to wake up to this criticism of the practice, the dangers of quietism and the ironic injunction of ‘don’t just stand there, sit down’. The Mindfulness and Social Change Network, which researches how ‘social and environmental perspectives on suffering and wellbeing could inform mindfulness teaching and practice’. One of its members is David Forbes, author of Mindfulness and its Discontents, who believes that the potential for a more ‘evolved post-pandemic society is already here’, but ‘greed-driven corporations, anti-democratic and immoral politicians, and right wing corporatized media remain powerful forces that favor profit over public good’. He continues: “Whether these forces will win out in part depends on those who organize, resist, and fight for a better world. Can mindfulness play a part in this struggle? The answer is yes, if we connect our contemplation practices with social realities.”

This blog has largely concentrated on the doubts. The next will look at a more positive view. In particular it will explore claims that mindfulness is not inherently quietist – a tag which should perhaps be restricted to therapeutic interventions – and that, properly understood, it has the potential to help activism and effect social change. It will also ponder whether the two democracy cafés in Salisbury create the sort of liminal space that can operate as a transitional stage between silent meditation and social participation.


What is the point of work?

The Flunky

NO, seriously, what is the point of work? It may sound like a frivolous question but the answer has serious consequences. Is work inherently valuable or is it valuable only for what it provides? What would life be like without certain jobs? Consider our current situation. It’s almost unimaginable what life would be like without frontline healthcare workers, carers, shop staff, teachers, refuse collectors, bus and delivery drivers. On the other hand we would barely notice the absence of PR executives, consultants, corporate lawyers and corporate tax advisers (OK, we would notice the absence of the last lot because corporations would probably be paying their fair share of tax!). The absurdity is, however, that the latter tend to get paid vastly more amounts of money than the former. Indeed, as David Graeber points out in his book Bullshit Jobs, the more socially valuable your job is the less you are likely to earn, while the less socially valuable your job is the more you are likely to earn.

According to Graeber there are five main types of bullshit jobs: 1 – Flunkies whose jobs exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important; 2 – Goons whose jobs have an aggressive element but who exist only because someone employs them; 3 – Duct Tapers are employees whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organisation; 4 – Box Tickers refers to employees who exist only or mainly to allow an organisation to claim that it is doing something that, in fact, it isn’t doing.

And, finally, 5 – Taskmasters, either those who’s job consists entirely of telling others what to do or to create more bullshit jobs.

The Taskmaster

The proliferation of pointless jobs, according to Graeber, is at least partly due to the protestant work ethic in which work is seen increasingly as an end in itself rather than a means to an end, regardless of how mind-numbingly pointless and tedious it is. Indeed, suffering this kind of tedium has ‘become a badge of economic citizenship’. Going deeper, Graeber argues that this attitude actually has its origins in a change in our sense of time, which involved a tectonic shift from the medieval time-set when ‘time is measured by actions’ and episodically related to seasonal work, to one in which, under capitalist forms of work, wage labourers sell their time. If you were lucky, under the medieval system you would be apprenticed to a Master during which time you would learn your craft over several years and try to save enough money to set yourself up as a Master and join the world of adulthood – although of course this route was not open to everyone and even then people could live in crushing poverty. But the point is that under capitalism, according to Graeber, even this route was shut off as workers were forced to sell their time and never allowed to achieve the status of adulthood.

Once time becomes the thing that is being sold, then it is a short step to having to kill time that someone is paying for whether or not it has any social worth. In addition to this process is layered the puritanical notion of work in which ‘dutiful submission even to meaningless work under another’s authority is a form of moral self-discipline’. But the situation is even worse because the feudalism that allowed the lord of the manor to siphon-off a large proportion of the peasant’s income and then distribute some of that to his retainers and flunkies in order to maintain his wealth and status, has now morphed into what Graeber calls ‘managerial feudalism’. In this system increasing wealth is extracted by managers to fund their lifestyles and hierarchies as ‘all the value created by actual productive workers in the lower quintile is extracted to those at the top’. So now the political aspects of the medieval world has manifested itself in late capitalism as politics and economics are barely distinguishable and our form of representative government is increasingly run by the super rich.

Graeber argues that ‘productive jobs have been automated away’ but ‘rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours’ we have seen the ballooning of pointless jobs up to and including the ‘creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations’. And then, of course, there are the lobbyists who help the whole charade to tick along.

Graeber has only been able to identify one solution to all this and that is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). “What Basic Income ultimately proposes is to detach livelihood from work,” he writes. He acknowledges that one of the main objections is ‘where is the money coming from?’ but as Graeber writes this objection stems from the fact that ‘we’ve all grown up with largely false assumptions about what money is, how it’s produced, what taxes are really for, and a host of other issues’. One of the other objections is that people would waste away their time if they didn’t have to work for a living to which Graeber replies: “What the phenomenon of bullshit jobs really brings home is the foolishness of such assumptions. No doubt a certain proportion of the population of a free society would spend their lives on projects most others would consider to be silly or pointless, but it’s hard to imagine how it would go much over 10 or 20 per cent. But already right now, 37 to 40 per cent of workers in rich countries already feel their jobs are pointless.”

Whether or not Graeber’s argument ultimately holds water is a matter of deliberation but it is an important contribution to the debate that currently swirls around the notion of UBI and it is one that has gained more traction during the pandemic as we begin to see in sharp relief the workers who really matter in our society and the ones who don’t.


The magical mathematician -2

Dr John Dee

You may recall from the last blog that we were left wondering why the Bishop of Salisbury in the late 17th century, Seth Ward, would be interested in a Kabbalistic work like Dr John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica which appears to support a geocentric view of the solar system rather than the Copernican heliocentric view. Seth Ward was a renowned mathematician and astronomer in his own right and most definitely in the second camp.

The central glyph in the Monas

After all The Monas is a very strange book. According to Glynn Parry in The Arch-Conjuror of England Dee applied the sacred art of Kabbalah to this ‘new realm of symbols’. “Dee found that the Monad’s components, the ‘common astronomical symbols of the planets’, derived like letters from geometrical elements of points, straight lines and the circumferences of circles,” writes Parry. Their proportions ‘also evoked cosmic meanings, because he believed that the planetary symbols, like letters, were not mere human conventions but “imbued with immortal life”.’ Then again Caiyros Arlen Strang contends in Understanding the Monas Hieroglyphic Monad that it seems likely that the ‘Monad Symbol is a complete structural image that if meditated upon long enough, one will begin to see the appearance of Angelic Language in front of them’.

But perhaps the answer to our query about Seth Ward’s interest actually lies in two other books bound with the Monas. One of these books is written by Dee and the other by Thomas Digges. These two men had a close relationship and at one stage Dee was Digges’s mathematical teacher. The two books, published in 1573, were written in response to the ‘new star’, which turned out to be what has come to be called Tycho Brahe’s Supernova Type 1a explosion.

Tycho Brahe’s Supernova

Digges (1546-1595) was an interesting man in his own right. He was the first to expound the Copernican system in English and to discard the notion of a fixed shell of immovable stars to argue for infinitely many stars at varying distances. He was also the first to postulate the ‘dark night paradox’, which states that the darkness of the night sky conflicts with the assumption of an eternal static universe. The night sky is one of the pieces of evidence for a dynamic universe such as the Big Bang model.

What is fascinating in these two books, which are the ones most commonly bound together rather than the Monas, is the different approach to mathematics. For Dee, the new star was enrolled in his conception of mathematical astronomy as a calendrical and chronological art which also revealed portents in astrology and alchemy. For Digges, however, it announced a celestial reformation in which mathematics triumphed as the key to heavenly truth. So, perhaps it was this shifting role of mathematics in human thought that attracted Bishop Ward rather than the Kabbalistic Monad.

But from these heavenly delights we now return to earth and, in particular, to Dee’s association with Wilton House and the Pembroke family – and many thanks are due to Alan Crooks of Fisherton History Society for providing a wealth of information about Dee’s relationship with the family. We know that Dee entered the household service in 1552 and that the first Tudor House was built by William Herbert, the first Earl of Pembroke in 1551, which raises the intriguing possibility that Dee spent some time in Wilton. The evidence is sketchy because there was a fire at Wilton House in the 1640s and, as Wiltshire archives points out, all the family’s papers were destroyed. The original house lasted for 80 years before it was largely rebuilt to form the building we see today. However, we do get a hint about Dee’s involvement with Wilton House in Alan’s article The St Thomas Church Alchemist in which he records that said alchemist, Dr Simon Forman, is referred to in John Aubrey’s Natural History of Wiltshire as being a great favourite of Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke and that she had an ‘active interest in spiritual magic and was close to Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, Dr John Dee’. Mary was an extraordinary person who created and led the Wilton Circle, the most important literary circle in England’s history, was also trained in medicine and is ‘known to have kept a chemistry laboratory at Wilton House’.

Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Further evidence of Dee engagement both with the Pembrokes and with Mary’s own family, the Sidneys, is given in “Lady Alcumy”: Elizabethan Gentlewomen and the Practice of Chymistry by Sienna Louise Latham, also, incidentally, provided by Alan. In this thesis Latham states that Dee had a longstanding ‘association with both the family into which Mary was born and the one she joined through marriage’. Latham also claims that Dee may have tutored ‘young Henry Herbert, who would become Mary’s husband’. And before that: “While there is no evidence that Mary studied under Dee, she may have joined her brother in chymical training with the magus.” And Alan has pointed out that Peter J. French in his book The World of an Elizabethan Magus writes: “Whether or not the Countess of Pembroke received instruction in chemistry from Dee is uncertain, but it seems decidedly possible.”

So there we have it, it seems highly likely that Dee spent some time in Wilton and may have even instructed the Countess. We may never know, however, how long he was there or the extent of his engagement. It seems entirely appropriate, however, that these three books by Dee and Digges resides in Salisbury Cathedral library, just three miles from Wilton and it beggars belief that Dee did not visit Salisbury and, maybe, the library itself. The Cathedral library is not a public library but bookings for tours once the lockdown has been lifted can be made on the Cathedral’s website.


The magical mathematician – 1

Dr John Dee

TUCKED away in a corner among the 10,000 books at Salisbury Cathedral’s library is an unprepossessing little book. It’s rather drably covered in vellum and is easily overlooked among the library’s more luxuriously bound volumes (the library isn’t open to the public but visits can be booked on the Cathedral’s website once the lockdown is over of course and the Cathedral is fully open). But concealed within its boards is the magical world of Dr John Dee and his enigmatic Monas Hieroglyphica.

The title page of Monas Hieroglyphica

It is thought that the book was donated to the library by the Bishop of Salisbury Seth Ward – himself a noted mathematician and astronomer – between 1667 and 1689. Dr Dee (1527 – 1608/9) was a mathematician and astronomer but also an astrologer, occult philosopher and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (he once tried to explain his Monas to her but she apparently came away none the wiser, as so many have since). Much of his time was spent studying and practicing alchemy, divination and hermetic or esoteric philosophy and according to A. C. Grayling he was the ‘last major outburst of occultism as a force in European affairs’. In fact it’s probably more accurate to say that he was on the cusp between the pre-modern and modern world view.

Dee was a polymath and in his day he was one of the most pre-eminent intellectuals in Europe, what we might call today a public intellectual. His aura has continued to this day with countless books written about him or with his inclusion in fictional accounts of the day (Peter Ackroyd wrote a book called The House of Doctor Dee in 1993 and he features in Prophesy by S. J. Parris) but as we shall see in the next instalment he was a profoundly flawed person who was a terrible judge of character and was not above plagiarism. At one point he became disillusioned with what, for him, were conventional routes to wisdom and came to the conclusion that there was another way through direct consultation with the angels. But it was not until he met skryer or crystal-gazer Edward Kelly that his interest in conversing with the angels really took off between 1582 and 1587.

Skryer Edward Kelly

We should remember, however, that his interest in esoteric philosophy predates this period in his life by many years. He wrote Monas Hieroglyphica during 12 days of spiritual ecstasy in 1564 when he waged 37 and living in Antwerp nearly 20 years before his brush with angelology. The following is just a flavour of its contents, translated from the Latin: “Although the semi-circle of the Moon is placed above the circle of the Sun and would appear to be superior, nevertheless we know that the Sun is the ruler and King. We see her grandeur, which is apparent to ordinary men, yet the face, or semi-sphere of the Moon, always reflects the light of the Sun.” He believed that the ‘Spirit writes these things rapidly through me; I hope, and believe, I am merely the quill which traces these characters’.

Dee was in no doubt that his work would revolutionise astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, linguistics, optics, magic and adeptship (an Adept was particularly skilled in in the study and practice of alchemy or hermetic philosophy encompassing alchemy, astrology and theosophy. The grade of Adeptus Minor and subsequent grades Adeptus Major and Adeptus Exemptus form the Second Order of the Golden Dawn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). He also thought it would bring power to those who understood it. He often directly addressed Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1564 (the year the Monas was published) to 1576 and indeed it is dedicated to him. “Oh, Maximilian! May God, through this mystagogy (instruction before initiation into religious mysteries or before participation in the sacraments), make you or some scion of the House of Austria, the most powerful of all when the time comes for me to be tranquil in Christ, in order that the honour of His redoubtable name be restored within the abominable and intolerable shadows hovering above earth.” Putting this into context, we should remember that Dee was constantly seeking patronage and this may simply be another example of these never-ending efforts.

If we look more closely at the title page of the Monas (above) we know that the words at the top translate roughly as ‘if you don’t understand this then be quiet or learn’, which hardly anyone has taken any notice of because although nobody really understands it, that fact has not prevented people from talking and writing about it. The four squares at the top and bottom of each column represent the Quaternity or the four elements of fire, air, water and earth. The writing at the bottom of the glyph are words from Genesis: “From the Dew of Heaven (Mercury or quicksilver) and from the Fat of the Earth (sulphur) God gives to you.” Mercury, the king of the planets, and sulphur are the two most important elements in alchemy. The symbols contained within the egg shape (itself an important alchemical symbol) represent the Moon interlaced with the Sun, as described by Dee. In the centre is the earth, which means that this is a geocentric symbol with the Sun revolving around the Earth, rather than the heliocentric view adopted by Copernicus earlier in the 16th century, although this may also be a representation of the Lapis or Philosopher’s Stone. The linking of the Moon and Sun also doubles as the astrological sign for Taurus, the first sign of earth. Below that we have the four corners of the Quaternity again delineated this time by the Christian Cross and the footing represents Aries, another important symbol in alchemy being the first sign of the Zodiac and of fire, Mars and iron. Pythagorean numerology also plays a part here with the four stations of the cross adding up to the Unity of ten via 1+2+3+4, which, according to Dee is why the Roman numeral of ten is also a cross.

Inside the Monas Hieroglyphica

You might be wondering why at this point why Bishop Seth Ward, who supported the Copernican view of the solar system, would have wanted a book like the Monas which comes from such a different perspective. The answer is also contained in this extraordinary little book and we will investigate this in the next blog.

Some of the paraphernalia on show in the British Museum allegedly used by Edward Kelly during his conversations with the Angels.

The ‘ghost in the machine’

EVER since the great French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes divided the world into the material brain and immaterial mind philosophers have grappled with the so-called mind/body problem.

As Gilbert Ryle put it in his ground-breaking book The Concept of Mind: “As a man of scientific genius he (Descartes) could not but endorse the claims of mechanics, yet as a religious and moral man he could not accept, as Hobbes accepted, the discouraging rider to these claims, namely that human nature differs only in degree of complexity from clockwork. The mental could not be just a variety of the mechanical.” Disparagingly, Ryle describes this immaterial Self as the ‘ghost in the machine’ and indeed it is difficult not to think of the mind/body problem without conjuring up a sort of spiritual homunculus directing affairs from within.

Rene Descartes

Since, then, however, neurophilosophy and science have come a long way but the homunculus still makes an appearance. In Philosophy, Neuroscience and Consciousness philosopher Rex Welshon refers to what he calls the ‘central executive function’ which bleeds into the notion of a ‘metacognitive process’. And then our old friend the homunculus makes his appearance. “One particularly forceful way of putting these problems is to note that the central executive’s various functions threaten to compose a homunculus, a little person inside the brain that replicates the activity of a big person with that brain.” But as Welshon points out, this merely shifts attention from a big thing to a small thing.

However, modern neuroscientists are moving towards the idea that there is an executive function within the brain that is metacognitive and operating above the basic object-level information operations. This enables it to monitor other processes without resorting to a homunculus. “What we monitor is other thoughts, beliefs, fears and hopes, and what we do when we monitor them is adopt a distant cognitive attitude towards them, analysing their causes and consequences, for example, and assessing their fit within our overall psychological economy,” writes Welshon. If this is true it seems to counter bother the need for a ‘ghost in the machine’ and the fear that we are inherently irrational and bound to act according to external causes, because it would appear that we actually do have the ability to detect, analyse and act upon causes, even if we are not always very good at detecting, analysing and acting upon said causes.

Welshon is writing from a default naturalist position in which there still remain divisions between reductive physicalists and non-reductive physicalists. For the former ‘conscious properties are reducible to some level of physical, usually neural, property’. Most non-reductive physicalists argue that ‘conscious properties bear some other relation to physical properties that is weaker than identity but still substantial enough to warrant neuroscientific investigation’. Other non-reductionists, however, believe that some conscious properties do not ‘bear any relation substantial enough to warrant neuroscientific investigation’. It is interesting to note that the latter group is not saying that there may be a relation but we will never be able to determine what it is, but, rather, that there is no relation to investigate. And that raises the question as to what is left over. In what sphere do these conscious properties exist if they don’t have any relation to physical properties and is this position vulnerable to the re-emergence of the spiritual homunculus? Or the ‘ghost in the machine’? At one extreme we have Ryle who argues that even asking questions about reduction is a category error because the mind and body should never have been divided in the first place. At the other are thinkers like Raymond Tallis who in the latest edition of Philosophy Now argues that: “Neural activity, which does not contain generality and possibility, could not support or instantiate any general thought, least of all about thought.” This claim is based on the assertion that no event in the physical world can either have generality or possibility. Tallis clearly fits into the second class of non-reductive physicalists and seems to want to shut down any further scientific enquiry into these problem. Indeed his latest book is called Reclaiming Humanity from God and Science. But as Welshon says, although there may well come a time when neuroscience has to hang up its brain cells and admit defeat – we haven’t reached that point yet. Although one might also ask the question – how do we know?

Professor Raymond Tallis

Liberalism and the Philosophy of Right

ARGUABLY there are two distinct problems with liberalism – the first is to do with sloppy definition, the second is to do with its actual definition.

In the first instance, there is a tendency to take a rather fuzzy view of liberalism – that it is something to do with tolerance and freedom of the individual. Now, while these elements may be necessary conditions of liberalism, they are not sufficient because there are other political traditions that privilege them including, but not exclusively, anarchism. In order to qualify as a political liberal one has to accept tolerance and freedom of the individual combined with the claim that the individual is the fundamental political unit. Although this sounds like anarchism, the latter can be distinguished from liberalism in so far as, unlike liberalism, it calls for the government of no-one and, also unlike liberalism, it can accommodate collectivism, particularly in its anarcho-syndicalist manifestation.

It is precisely its insistence on the individual as the basic political unit that has led to the constant problem of how the individual becomes a social being. Indeed, from Thomas Hobbes through Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill right up to John Rawls this has been a constant refrain of liberal philosophy. All, in their own ways, have attempted to halt the slide into the kind of extreme individualism of libertarians like Robert Nozick and the attenuated individual epitomized by Homo Economicus at the heart of neoliberalism in which the only relationship between individuals is transactional and there is no such thing as society.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

One philosopher who has received little attention in the Anglophone tradition is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831).There are many reasons why he has been ignored, one of which is undoubtedly the density of his writing. But Hegel is also seen through the prism of the Young Hegelians, particularly Karl Marx. It is thought that Marx’s dialectical materialism set Hegel, with his dialectical idealism, back on his feet. The particular logical device referred to here is the dialectic model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis. But according to Terry Pinkard in his biography of Hegel, the latter never used this dialectic device, although in a wider sense he did think that his thinking was a synthesis of all thought that had come before him. Nevertheless, he has often been compared unfavourably to Marx. And he came under sustained attack after World War Two in Karl Popper’s influential The Open Society and its Enemies, which laid the blame for the German catastrophe on the baleful influence of Hegelianism.

As with so many great thinkers, therefore, it is useful to go back to the source and in this instance Hegel is interesting for our purposes because of his attempt to reconcile the needs of the individual and the universal. This sense of the universal can be misleading because it sounds as though it should belong to communism, but in fact it is another attempt to move beyond the individual while not losing it as the fundamental unit.

So, in his Philosophy of Right Hegel attempts to redefine the role of the individual as the exercise of duty to society so that the individual is ‘freed, also, from the indefinite subjectivity, which does not issue in the objective realization implied in action, but remains wrapped up in his own unreality’. Further: “Hence, as to the ethical, there are only two possible views. Either we start from the substantive social system, or we proceed atomically and work up from a basis of individuality. This latter method, because it leads to mere juxtaposition, is void of spirit, since mind or spirit is not something individual, but the unity of individual and universal.”

Unlike classical liberalism Hegel’s most fundamental political unit is the family in which we are not ‘independent persons but members’. The next level in his society is the Civic Community which contains three elements:

A. The recasting of want, and the satisfaction of the individual through his work, through the work of all others, and through the satisfaction of there wants.

B. Actualization of the general freedom required for this, ie, the protection of property by the administration of justice.

C. Provision against possible mischance, and care for the particular interest as the common interest, by means of police and the corporation.

Although Hegel was an advocate of the ‘free market’, drawing on the ideas of Adam Smith, he was acutely aware of the problem of extreme inequality it created. For him the main problem was that the poor had no stake in such a society and the rich thought they could buy themselves out of its obligations – and it was problem for which, he admitted, his philosophy had no answer.

All this should be seen in the context of his controversial theory of world history, which for him was the equivalent to the development of human freedom which started, and stalled, in the East and found its ‘absolute end’ in Europe and the ‘absolute right’ of rulers. It was probably this position, and its apparent valorisation of Prussian rulers, which led to him to being associated with aggressive German nationalism and Nazism by thinkers like Popper. His image as a proto-Nazi has stuck just as unfairly as Marx’s image as a proto-Stalinist.

Edmund Burke

So what are we to make of Hegel? Well, the most obvious one is that his Philosophy of Right actually has more in common with Edmund Burke’s conservatism and his ‘little platoons’ than it has with Mill’s liberalism. In contrast to classical liberalism he is effectively asking how the social being becomes an individual. This owes more to communitarianism, although of course it is a deeply conservative form and would not satisfy radical communitarians like Noam Chomsky with his libertarian socialism or the mutual aid of the Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin.

Roger Scruton

Another conservative philosopher he resembles is our own Roger Scruton who, like Thomas Hobbes, lived near Malmesbury and sadly died recently.


The spectre of nihilism – 2

WE left the last blog stuck in the pathological stage of nihilism. The problem remains the question of ‘truth’ and its vulnerability to attack. Baker’s solution is that the heart of philosophy is not to ‘have’ the truth but to stand in a constant relation to truth – it is truth-telling as ontology, as a way of being, prior to any epistemology. This is resonant of the idea that happiness can be frustratingly elusive if it is targeted directly, but can emerge when pursuing something else, like an active life. Baker continues: “The test of truth with the other is a collaboration rather than a competitive endeavour because establishing a relationship to the truth is not something that one can do alone.”

Perhaps this notion of living truth rather than having it is exactly what is meant by deliberative democracy as practiced in the Salisbury and Bemerton Heath Democracy Cafés. But living the truth, according to Baker, courage and confidence as exemplified by the Cynics. What happens, though, when courage and confidence are absent – as they so often are? This is exactly what philosophers like Kant and Thomas Nagel were concerned about when they attempted to establish access to moral action in the absence of the desire for it or, in our case, requires courage and confidence. On the face of it the subjectivism implied by living the truth and testing it in relation to other subjects is constantly in danger of collapsing into pathological nihilism. However, all may not be lost because, as Baker puts it, this living the truth ontology comes prior to epistemology, not instead of it. So, if we can bumble along living the truth as best we can, we can still turn to more objective forms of knowledge. This is entering what Baker calls truth in the world as opposed to truth of the world, which leads to the bifurcation of the two worlds that cancel each other out.

Here we reach the core of the problem. It could be argued that when Baker writes about the truth of the world he is referring to attempts to find absolute truth in the super sensory world as in Plato’s Forms, Nietzsche’s sublimated Will to Power, the absolute knowledge of Madhyamika Buddhism or the omniscient God of the monotheistic religions. It’s when these fail, and only when they fail – as when Nietzsche declared that God is dead – that the spectre of nihilism arises and the sensory world is negated with it because it can make no sense of the absolutism either of God or Nihilism. In other words absolutism begets God and Nihilism and its only when one negates absolutism that the sensory world makes sense. In the sensory world truth is a messy affair but it is only in this world that it makes sense. Empiricism does not generate the Truth but it does generate generalizable truths. Art, music and morality do not create timeless Truth but they do create truths that give the illusion of timelessness. Shakespeare, Beethoven and Tolstoy embody truth in the way that Baker means it in the sense of being in relation to it, although, of course there may be cultural limits to this kind of truth.

Science and philosophy, on the other hand can create cross cultural truths, if not the absolute and unchallengeable Truth required in the super sensory world. For example, evolutionary biologists have adduced evidence that altruism performs an evolutionary function. This finds its scientific expression in David Sloan Wilson’s book Does Altruism Exist? in which he claims that ‘altruism is defined in terms of action and in terms of relative fitness within and between groups, it exists wherever there is group-level functional organization’. And it finds its philosophical home in Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism in which he argues: “At least sometimes objectification will demand that everyone pursue an uncomplicated end which we already acknowledge a subjective reason to pursue; the elimination of pain, for example, or survival, or the satisfaction of basic appetites. If this is the case, then we have a prima facie reason to secure those ends for others as well as for ourselves.”

This being the messy world of our sensory world, of course, altruism will also be in conflict with our more egoistic sentiments and, as Wilson points out, just as selfishness comes in ‘benign and pathological forms’ so too can altruism. But this is our world, not a super sensory world, and it’s in our world where wisdom is required to navigate the benign and the pathological, the slippery truths of art and literature and the paradigms of scientific enquiry. The question is, then, what happens when wisdom is absent?


The spectre of nihilism – 1

IT can be frightening sometimes to realise how fragile our value systems can be – how easily they can be swept away by events. It can be hard to remain afloat, for example, when faced with a tidal wave of assault on the very notion of truth. From post-modernism to post-truth politics; from conspiracy theorists to egoists, the world can seem a bleak place. And then there’s the loss of any sense of the specialness of humanity since Darwin. We would not exist at all without bacteria and bacteria – the true masters of the universe – will long survive our ephemeral existence, as will the planet.

In these circumstances – as some politicians and their advisers laugh and jeer at those who cling on to truth – it can be tempting to say ‘to hell with it’ and peer into the abyss of nihilism. What if John Dewey is right, as noted in the previous blog, that the ‘radical oppositions in philosophy’ are simply ‘different ways of supplying recipes for denying to the universe the character of contingency’, and that there is no stability or truth? Or, as Marx famously said of capitalism, ‘all that is solid melts into air’? That the truth, reasoning and logic, so privileged by Enlightenment thinkers, are mere chimera, a mockery of human existence?

But what then is nihilism? Well, the word comes from the Latin ‘nihil’, meaning the rejection of all aspects of moral, political or philosophical thought without any positive alternatives. All morality, for example, is simply a cover for egoistic self-seeking. All knowledge is contingent on historical epochs, often relative to groups, nations or civilizations that has no meaning beyond them. The universe is entirely indifferent or even hostile to human life, which is, in existential terms, inherently absurd, pointless and futile.

In practice nihilism has often been applied to movements which, while they want to destroy existing institutions and social mores, actually want to replace them with those that they think will be better. The word was famously used to describe Bazarov, the protagonist in Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The Russian Nihilists that followed in the 19th century did not question existential meaning but wanted to destroy a political order they despised in order to effect political and social change.

Going back further in time, the Cynics of ancient Athens have also been described as being nihilists in that they eschewed the existing polis, social and moral conventions, even to the extent of going naked and doing unspeakable things in the market place. Unlike Socrates, for example, Diogenes even rejected the comforts of home and lived in a barrel while begging for his living. But the Cynics wanted to replace the polis with the cosmopolis or universal love of humanity. Nietzsche is also often called a nihilist but, while he loathed what he called the slave morality of Christianity, after Zarathustra declared that God was dead, replaced it with the sublimated will to power and the ubermensch.

Frederich Nietzsche

So wherein lies nihilism proper? Is it even possible to have no values at all? Well, according to Gideon Baker in Nihilism and Philosophy, it lies in philosophy’s own ‘will to truth’ because it ‘makes truth (understood as what is timeless) the utmost thing and by the same token besmirches a world of time and becoming’. And again: “This tension between truth as unchanging and world as change is also why the will to truth continually calls truth into question.” We seem to be back with Dewey’s tension between stability and uncertainty. It is philosophy itself, as understood by Baker, that gives rise to the spectre of nihilism!

The problem for nihilists, however, is that it is also entangled with this two-worlds problem. “If nihilism is wrapped up in the two-worlds problem then why not simply abolish the supersensory (true) world of metaphysics and get back to the one world that metaphysics divided into two?” asks Baker. Why indeed? Why does the metaphysical or noumenal world still hold a bridgehead in our thinking? Here Baker has the most extraordinary insight that the sensory world could not even exist without the ‘supersensory world by which “this world” was first defined’. He adds: “Paradoxically, this world as final ground is the outcome of the groundless world beyond, and not its precondition.” Further: “Once having lost the world beyond we cannot simply revert to this world since, prior to the beyond, it was not there!” And again: “We have lost what we never had and cannot then rediscover it…we are extraneous to all worlds, the true (ideal, eternal) and the illusory (material, transient).”

Martin Heidegger

According to Heidegger it was the dawning realisation of this horrible paradox that led to the insanity of Nietzsche’s last 10 years. In his Late Notebooks Nietzsche identifies three distinct forms of nihilism beginning with reactive or passive which seeks solace in religion and conventional morality. The second, active nihilism, does not feel the lack of old values but does not have the strength to promote new beliefs. As such it ‘remains a pathological intermediate state in which the inference that there is no meaning at all always threatens’. Nietzsche sought to dig himself out of this deep nihilism by seeing it as a necessary stage before its overcoming, post-nihilistic life-affirming stage which, for him, was the ubermensch. Those who do not choose the sublimated will to power, however, can find themselves languishing in the anxiety inducing passive or pathological stages.

To be continued…


Our divided brain

WHY is it that so much of our thinking is driven by dualisms? We have, for example, the division between mind and body; spiritualism and materialism; absolutism and relativism; rationalism and sensationalism; idealism and realism; subjectivism and objectivism.

In some cases we can lay the reason at the door of a particular philosopher. Rene Descartes, for example, although he didn’t invent the mind-body problem, certainly cemented it into our (divided?) consciousness. Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind lays the blame fairly and squarely on him, arguing that Descartes could not envisage the mental as ‘just a variety of the mechanical’. The fact-value dichotomy has its origins in David Hume’s idea that one can never infer an ‘ought’ statement from an ‘is’ statement. The conflict between realists and idealists has a long history. Three ways of tackling these divisions involve either choosing one side and going for broke; attempting a synthesis; or trying to collapse the problem. For example, one might insist on the reality of the world as perceived by us or drift towards the idealism of Bishop Berkeley. Schopenhauer attempts a synthesis of the split between the phenomenal and noumenal with his double aspect theory of perception while Hilary Putnam attempts to collapse the fact-value dichotomy in his appropriately entitled book The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy.

But there is another dualism involving views about the stability or otherwise of the world. Famously, Plato attempted to ‘fix’ the flux of the phenomenal world with his notion of Ideas or Forms. Thinkers like Henri Bergson, on the other hand, embrace the flux of multiplicity and motion while his fellow French philosopher Michel Serres takes the valorisation of flux to extremes. In his extraordinary book Genesis he writes: “The differential of the flux is fluxion. So the flux is a sum, and classical rationality is safe, I am going from the local, fluxion, to the global, flux, and conversely.” This is amazing stuff; it’s not just that the content expresses the philosophy of flux, the whole form of the book itself is in flux, although this is undermined, of course, by the fact that it is contained within the traditional format of the book.

In his book Experience and Nature, however, John Dewey tries to collapse the problem by arguing that the entanglement of stability and uncertainty drives us towards philosophy – it is the very stuff of philosophy. “Our magical safeguard against the uncertain character of the world is to deny the existence of chance, to mumble universal and necessary law, the ubiquity of cause and effect, the uniformity of nature, universal progress, and the inherent rationality of the universe.” And again: “But when all is said and done, the fundamentally hazardous character of the world is not seriously modified, much less eliminated.” Indeed Dewey goes much further to argue that ‘just this predicament of the inextricable mixture of stability and uncertainty gives rise to philosophy, and that it is reflected in all its recurrent problems and issues’.

What if, though, these ‘radical oppositions’ have an even deeper foundation in the very structure of our mind? certainly Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary claims that the division between the left and right hemispheres has a profound affect on the way we think. In very broad terms we could see one side of the brain favouring stability, realism and fact while the other privileges flux, idealism and imagination. Of course, one has to be careful not to simply pick those examples that tend to support this view and ignore those that don’t – cherry picking in other words. Nevertheless, there is sufficient plausibility in the argument to stake the claim that at least some of our penchant for philosophical divides resides in the structure of the brain itself. Indeed McGilchrist writes that our dualistic way of thinking points to the ‘fundamentally divided nature of mental experience’. He believes that our dualisms might consist of metaphors that ‘have some literal truth’. It may be that we still need to choose, synthesise or collapse these dualisms but we can, at the very least, finally accept that mental division is a natural phenomenon that may be overcome once we know its physical foundations.

Who knows, these considerations may also have relevance to our tendency towards social and political polarisation and our apparent need to label ourselves as ‘leaver’ or remainer’. If we stop labelling ourselves and start acknowledging that this practice is deeply embedded in our psyche and instead, for example, explain why we voted one way or another, then perhaps we can begin to bring the two hemispheres to work in greater harmony – and our divided polity along with it. The alternative prospect, however, that we are for ever condemned to divisions that cannot be overcome.


Necessity, freedom and anxiety

MANY critics of today’s society concentrate on neoliberalism, taking it to be a kind of Capitalism on steroids. If only it could be overcome, then Capitalism itself can be tamed and shown to have a human face as wealth is redistributed and the Welfare State rebuilt. A previous blog – Death of a superhero – Homo Economicus? – demonstrated how the definition of value pioneered by Adam Smith, Ricardo and Marx was turned upside down to help create the theory of Marginal Utility, which in turn led to our ‘superhero’.

But according to the Swedish philosopher Martin Hagglund in This Life – Why Mortality Makes Us Free, this sort of analysis misses the point. What is needed is not a reversion to the idea of surplus labour value or what Hagglund calls socially necessary labour, but a ‘revaluation of value’. At the heart of the book is what he calls secular faith, that is a faith in our finitude as opposed to the eternity embodied in religious faith. His fundamental argument is that faith in God and/or the eternal is incompatible with a genuine commitment to and caring for people. This does not mean that people of faith don’t help people but that if we can appeal to the eternal then, ultimately, nothing matters except eternity itself and love of God. “This becomes salient when we are moved to acknowledge our deepest commitments, making explicit what is implicit in our passion and pains,” he writes. And again: “This secular faith, I argue, opens the possibility for all passion and meaningful engagement,” which is shut down by a belief in the eternal and the indifference it can engender in the here and now. Certainly, faith and a belief in God can inspire one to do good deeds, but ultimately one is doing good in the name of God or one’s faith rather than for people. In short, he argues that we should concentrate on freedom in this world rather than salvation in the next.

Provocatively, Hagglund identifies ‘spiritual freedom’ not in the realm of the eternal but in secular faith as he defines it. Spiritual freedom entails the ability of the agent to ‘ask herself how she should spend her time and be responsive to the risk that she is wasting her life’.

The second half of the book takes a decidedly radical political turn building on his concept of secular faith, drawing heavily on the work of Karl Marx and in the process rescuing him from the perversions and distortions of his thought in various disastrous 20th century social experiments. In This Life Marx is rehabilitated as a radical humanist whose aim was to reduce what he called the Realm of Necessity and enhance the Realm of Freedom – individually and collectively. Hagglund heavily criticises left-leaning critics of Capitalism, including liberals and social democrats, for restricting their criticism to the redistribution of wealth created by socially necessary labour. What is needed, according to Hagglund, is a ‘revaluation of value’, echoing Nietzsche, such that wealth is not defined by the amount of profit generated by socially necessary labour but, rather, by the amount of socially free time we can create while reducing the quantity and increasing the quality of the former.

Unlike Smith and Ricardo, Hagglund claims, Marx saw Capitalism as a historically contingent ‘form of life in which wage labor is the foundation of social wealth’. As such ‘capitalism does not reflect an original state of nature and does not finally determine who we can be’. Hagglund adds that the ‘capitalist measure of value is inimical to the production of real social wealth, since it valorizes socially necessary labor time rather than socially available time’. Hence, while redistribution, welfare and concepts like the Universal Basic Income (UBI) can be emancipating and should not be discouraged, ultimately they accept the fundamental value system underlying Capitalism.

His solution is what he calls democratic socialism, which relies on three main principles: 1) that we measure our wealth – both individual and collective – in terms of socially available free time’ and embrace the ‘dead labour’ of machines to enable this; 2) the means of production should be collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit, which does not, however, commit us to ‘top-down model of central planning’ but is a necessary ‘condition for the reciprocal determination of part and whole in the economy’; 3) the principle formulated by Marx – ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. According to Hagglund, this allows us ‘not only to live our lives by satisfying our needs but also to lead our lives by cultivating our abilities’.

The spiritual freedom that Hagglund writes about as part of a secular faith in the finite also means that we have to face head-on the existential anxiety that it necessarily engenders because of the risk of failure that it embraces. Spiritual freedom entails risk and the ever-present danger that a long-standing commitment – like love or political activism – is vulnerable to loss and failure. Yet, according to Hagglund, if we are committed to spiritual freedom we cannot have recourse to anything that insulates us from this risk – like religion or even ancient Greek principles like Stoicism. There may even come a time when one’s entire life’s project comes to be recognised as a failure or even a waste of time in which case a kind of existential death occurs as your life’s purpose dies. It’s a huge risk and one that anyone who has lost a loved one or whose political project is crushed will recognise. The question then becomes how to dig oneself out of this existential risk and the terrifying prospect that it might not be possible!


The death of a Superhero – Homo Economicus?

“‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

WHAT is economic value and how is it created? This a key question and one that hasn’t seriously been addressed for a long time. For some it underpins all the critiques of modern capitalism including extreme individualism and the atomization of society. We all know about inequality, which was one of the problems discussed at Salisbury Democracy Café on 11 January, and the concept of the Superhero Homo Economicus is all powerful. The philosophical underpinning for this comes in the form of libertarian philosophers like Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia. Meanwhile Ayn Rand expressed it in literary form in Atlas Shrugged. It was driven by economists like Hayek and Mises and politically by Thatcher and Reagan. But is there an underlying narrative that holds all this together?

It turns out that there may be – and it has all to do with the definition of economic value. According to Mariana Mazzucato – Prof in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College, London – in her book The Value of Everything. According to her the first attempt to establish a formal theory of value was made in the mid-18th century by a group of French thinkers dubbed the Physiocrats. One of them, Francois Quesney, thought that value rested in the soil – or rather the farming of the soil. But it was Adam Smith, followed by David Ricardo, who first attempted to establish value in labour. And then Karl Marx refined these theories and came up with his own theory of value, culminating in the claim that ‘labour power creates surplus’, which is then expropriated by capitalists. This was his answer to the question relating to how capitalists and financiers came to be so rich when value was created by labour. Indeed, this was a very awkward question for the wealthy clique who desperately needed an alternative narrative, one that would justify their privileged position.

A group of thinkers including William Thompson, Thomas Hodgskin and John Gray came up with the solution in the form of Marginal Utility theory, which, according to Mazzucato, states that ‘all income is rewards for a productive undertaking’. Up until now value was assumed to reside in labour or the land, but Marginal Utility theory conveniently turns this on its head so that instead of prices being determined by value, value is determined by price. This means that all income and wealth is justified because income and wealth determines value. For our purposes, the significance is that whereas previously thinkers placed non-productive (wealth extraction) and productive (wealth creation) activities in separate categories, Marginal Utility theory placed them in one category – wealth creation!

However, for all this to work as it should two more assumptions were required. These were provided by ad hoc additions in the form of ‘rational choice theory’ – giving rise to our Superhero Homo Economicus and allowing its proponents to categorise unemployment as a lifestyle choice and poverty the result of poor decisions – and the notion of ‘equilibrium with perfect competition’ with its private good/public bad narrative. Lo and behold! You now have an entirely different theory of value and one that at a stroke eliminates the value of labour itself, not to mention Marx’s view of the volatile dynamism of capitalism.

Mazzucato concludes: “I have tried to open the new dialogue by showing that the creation of value is collective, that policy can be more active around co-shaping and co-creating markets, and that real progress requires a dynamic division of labour focused on the problems that twenty-first-century societies are facing.”

The problem is that Marginal Utility theory and its corollaries is so dominant that it doesn’t even appear as a theory but simply a part of the natural world like the air we breath. Even the Great Recession of 2008 barely dented it. And students of economics in our universities are not taught about alternative theories. But we should remember that for decades thinkers like Hayek and Mises were outriders and it was years before their ideas started to gain traction as Les Trente Glorieueses began to unravel. It’s happened before so it can happen again but it needs many more books like The Value of Everything and other communicators to make the case before we can finally announce the death of our Superhero – Homo Economicus.


Hail to the City of Being

The Tower of Babel

As we enter a new decade (unless you think it doesn’t actually start until 2021 of course) it might be useful to ask ourselves what sort of society we want. Party politics can be a messy affair, so sometimes it’s good to stand back and ponder.

But to know what sort of society we want we have to know what sort of society we have now. Many will argue that what is often called neoliberalism is still the dominant ideology. This is the economic model based at it’s most extreme on the mythical Homo Economicus, an attenuated vision of human nature which assumes that we all act in our own rational self-interest. This is often accompanied by a world view that encompasses lower tax, deregulation and a much reduced public sphere. Many would argue, of course, that Homo Economicus is a false view of humanity and that we are, rather, a more social animal than it allows. Nevertheless, with the rise of the gig economy in which employers buy discrete packages of time rather than the person, and now draws in nearly five million people, this does seem to be an age of increasing atomization and alienation. What sort of society is this?

According to the psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm it is the ‘have’ society, which he contrasts with the ‘being’ society. The former is about an obsession with possessing and consumption, the latter is a process of living and growing. He gives many examples of what he means but the simplest involves types of knowledge: “Optimum knowledge in the being mode is to know more deeply. In the having mode it’s to have more knowledge.” It is sobering to think that the following words were written in the mid-1970s in his book To have or to be: “To acquire, to own and to make a profit are the sacred and unalienable rights of the individual in the industrial society.” What would he think of our society as we enter the world of the Internet of Things and our experience and data have become the new raw material of what Shoshana Zuboff calls Surveillance Capitalism? And again, his analysis of the threat to representative government is also of relevance today “For even the remnant of democracy that still exists is doomed to technocratic fascism – the very type of society that was so much feared under the name of ‘communism’ – unless the giant corporations’ big hold on the government (which grows stronger daily) and on the population (via thought control through brainwashing) is broken.”

Fromm claims, among other things, that the ‘have’ society has encouraged and embedded an intellectually passive ‘spectator democracy’ and argues that we should foster an active ‘participatory democracy’ replacing Homo Economicus with the critically engaged citizen. To this end he is an advocate of exactly the kind of deliberative democracy that Salisbury Democracy Alliance is campaigning for with its democracy cafés and so far failed attempts to create a Citizens’ Jury in the city. Even in the 1970s Fromm sees elections as degenerating into ‘exciting soap opera, with the hopes and aspirations of the candidates – not political issues – at stake’. Genuine conviction, he writes, requires two elements – ‘adequate information and the knowledge that one’s decision has an effect’. Wiltshire Council and Salisbury City Council take note!

Among his many recommendations is the creation of a Universal Basic Income, although he doesn’t call it that. “Many of the evils of present-day capitalism and communist societies would disappear with the introduction of a guaranteed yearly income. ” And again: “The guaranteed yearly income would ensure real freedom and independence.”

In what today, with the benefit of hindsight, seems to be unduly quixotic Fromm is optimistic about the emergence of the being society. He sees Medieval culture flourishing because ‘people followed the vision of the City of God’ and the Age of Enlightenment energised people with the ‘vision of the growth of the Earthly City of Progress’. The 20th century has deteriorated into the Tower of Babel. But he concludes: “If the City of God and the Earthly City were thesis and antithesis, a new synthesis is the only alternative to chaos: the synthesis between the spiritual core of the Late Medieval world and the development of the rational thought and science since the Renaissance. This synthesis is The City of Being.” It seems that we still have a long time to wait! But at least we can carry on trying.


Hail to the Idiot!

Descartes – an Idiot?

THE question ‘what is philosophy? is one that is often neglected by philosophers. After all, while there may be a philosophy of science or of art and other disciplines, there cannot be a philosophy of philosophy without vicious circularity in the same way that empirical methods cannot be used to prove empiricism as the Scottish philosopher David Hume demonstrated.

Bertrand Russell attempted to solve the problem by identifying the value of philosophy, rather than its definition, as lying in the study of uncertainty. In his view, once a question has been answered it is no longer a philosophical problem. According to Russell, then, the value of philosophy lies in its uncertainty and ‘while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what may be’ and ‘keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect’. This view also challenges our obsession with getting answers at all costs.

Marx, of course, famously wrote: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” This is another attempt to show the value of philosophy rather than to define it. As an aside, according to Engels not even Marx called himself a Marxist. But it is possible to call oneself a Marxist without also having to agree with everything he wrote, just as it’s possible to call oneself a Christian without believing every word in the Bible. For example, one may be swayed by Marx’s fundamental materialistic philosophy and his belief that our individual consciousness is largely determined by our material and social being, without necessarily agreeing with his full political agenda, even though this would tend to place you on the communitarian side of politics.

The French philosopher Michel Serres argued that the ‘philosopher is the shepherd who tends the flock of the possibles on the highland…’ – a view closer in spirit to Russell than Marx but again has more descriptive than definitional power.

For Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – two long-time collaborators – philosophy is the creation of concepts. This is a deceptively simple idea but, once said it’s difficult to imagine a philosophical idea that doesn’t in some sense, at least, involve a concept, even one that claims that philosophy is nothing but uncertainty. But what is a concept? According to the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy ‘there is considerable disagreement about what exactly a concept is’, which isn’t very helpful. In their book What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari seem to have the same problem in as much as the concept ‘has a combination. It is a multiplicity’. Their meaning comes into sharper focus when they give examples, the first of which is Descartes’s ‘cogito’ which itself has three components – ‘doubting, thinking, and being’. Other concepts might be Kant’s Categorial Imperative or analytical a priori judgements, Mill’s Harm Principle, Schopenhauer’s Will to Live or Nietzsche’s Will to Power.

Deleuze and Guattari don’t rest there, however, because they also make the claim that because ‘concepts are fragmentary’, in order to have some consistency they exist on ‘one and the same plane’ – what they rather enigmatically call ‘the plane of immanence’. The work is difficult to fathom because a lot of it is expressed in metaphors, so it’s hard to uncover the underlying meaning. But things become a little clearer when they write that the ‘plane of immanence must be regarded as prephilosopical’ and a ‘field of consciousness’. However, it is what they call ‘conceptual personae’ who activate the concept within the plane. And one of these ‘conceptual personae’ is none other than Réne Descartes, whom the authors describe as an Idiot, hence the title of this article. By now, however, it should be obvious that we are not talking about idiocy in its modern sense but in the original Greek idiotes, meaning private person. In this sense Descartes is the ‘Idiot who says “I” and sets up the cogito’. And again: “The idiot is the private thinker, in contrast to the public teacher”, like, perhaps, Socrates or, in our day, the public intellectual Michael Sandel (perhaps our meaning of the word idiot today applies to the private person who, with apologies to Socrates, leads an unexamined life).

Ultimately, What is Philosophy? has more in common with Marx than Russell or Serres in that, as the translators Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson note, it reads like a ‘manifesto produced under the slogan “Philosophers of the world, create”.’ At the same time, however, Deleuze and Guattari have no firm answers, concluding that ‘concepts, sensations, and functions become undecidable at the same time as philosophy, art, and science become indiscernible’. No answers there then, only more questions!


The precarious soul!

“The awful shadow of some unseen Power/Floats though unseen amongst us. – visiting/This various world with as inconstant wing/As summer winds that creep from flower to flower. -/Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,/It visits with inconstant glance” From Hymn to Intellectual Beauty by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Let’s be clear, we are not talking about the metaphysical soul. This more like the soul, or consciousness that emerges out of matter. Something like Daniel Dennett’s moment when competence morphs into comprehension. Or, maybe, Thomas Aquinas’s view that if one says that someone has a soul it means little more than simply being alive.

In fact, the 13th century scholar is an interesting thinker. He is generally regarded as one of the most materialistic of theologians, although, unlike modern materialists, he saw no reason to believe that nothing but matter exists. Nevertheless, according to Denys Turner in his book on Thomas Aquinas, the latter shocked contemporary theologians because he ‘seemed scarcely to need a special account of the human soul at all, and therefore would seem to have no basis for an account of what is “spiritual” about human beings’. For Aquinas the soul was intellectual – and for holding such views at the time when he did he sailed very close to the wind indeed.

It is in this spirit, so to speak, that Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi approaches the subject in his book The Soul at Work – From Alienation to Autonomy: “The soul I intend to discuss does not have much to do with spirit. It is rather the vital breath that converts biological matter into an animated body.” And it is this soul, writes Bifo, that has been rendered precarious by 30 years of neoliberalism. Under Fordist industrialisation the worker had to leave his or her soul at the door of the factory; today the soul itself is harnessed to the neoliberal yoke. As Shoshana Zuboff wrote in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, matter is no longer the stuff of capitalism, our own experience or data is the new raw material upon which billions are made.

For Karl Marx it was our social being that determines our consciousness, not the other way around as Hegel believed. But for Bifo, in the random regime of fluctuating value under which we live today ‘precariousness becomes the general form of social existence’. And again: “The neoliberal values presented in the 1980s and 1990s as vectors of independence and self-entrepreneurship reveal themselves to be manifestations of a new form of slavery producing social insecurity and most of all a psychological catastrophe.” Once wandering and unpredictable, the soul ‘must now follow the functional paths’. The digitalized information that lies at the heart of every product and service – what Bifo calls ‘semio-capitalism’ in true continental philosophical style – is made possible by the mobile ‘phone as the lived experience of the worker is subsumed into the system.

For Yanis Varoufakis in Talking to My Daughter capitalism is characterised by what he calls exchange value in which everything is commodified and instead of going to the market we are the market. Now, according to Bifo, it’s not human labour that is up for sale but ‘packets of time’. And he adds: “De-personalized time is now the real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time has no rights.”

His solution is not the collapse of capitalism but a society in which it will ‘lose its pervasive, paradigmatic role in our semiotization, it will become one of possible forms of social organization’. Further: “Society does not need more work, more jobs, more competition. On the contrary: we need a massive reduction in work-time, a prodigious liberation of life from the social factory, in order to reweave the fabric of the social relation. Ending the connection between work and revenue will enable a huge release of energy for social tasks that can no longer be conceived as part of the economy and should once again become forms of life.”

What Bifo does not say is that this might not be a choice in the years to come but something foisted upon us by the exponential development of artificial intelligence. For him communism ‘will never be the principle of a new totalization, but one of the possible forms of autonomy from capitalist rule’. But, of course, there is a much simpler way of achieving this and that is by introducing a Universal Basic Income. According to Parijs and Vanderborght in Basic Income it is ‘arguably not only fair but also economically clever to give all, not just the better endowed, greater freedom to move easily among paid work, education, caring, and volunteering’.


From stiff upper lip to Stoicism

IF there is a single distinction to be made between modern ethics and ancient Greek ethics, it could be argued that while the former attempts to establish what is right independently of character, the latter tries to establish what kind of character is needed to lead the right sort of life.

Of course, this is a huge generalisation and there is some common ground in that most ethical positions – Egoism being the main exception – look at ways of determining morality beyond individual interests. The main difference is that modern ethics like Utilitarianism and Kantianism, or Deontology, attempt to establish moral truth beyond the desires of the individual, while the ancients sought to find it in the virtuous individual.

In recent years moral systems like Utilitarianism – which seeks to find the greatest happiness of the greatest number – and deontology – which in Kant’s system eschews consequentialism and prefers universal rules like his Categorical Imperative in the Kingdom of Ends – have come under sustained attack form, among others, philosophers who draw inspiration from the ancient Greeks. A leading figure in this renaissance is Aristotle in a field of ethics that is generally known as Virtue Ethics. In a nutshell neoaristotelianism ask what a virtuous person would typically do to reach a state of eudaimonia – roughly meaning flourishing or well-being. The second part of this question is critical because it plucks the theory from the jaws of circularity of simply stating that a virtuous person is one who acts virtuously. Another ancient philosophy, however, has been making a comeback in recent years in the form of Stoicism, which sits somewhere between neoaristotelianism and the austere asceticism of Cynics like Diogenes by valuing external values as long as they don’t deflect you from a virtuous path.

In his book How to be a Stoic, Professor Massimo Pigliucci guides us through the Stoic way of thinking, which is often simplistically referred to as the very British stiff upper lip – needless to say Stoicism is far richer and deeper. According to the author there are three main Stoic disciplines – the first, and perhaps the most important of which, is the discipline of desire. This idea rests on the fact that some things are are in our power while others are not. As the important Stoic philosopher Epictetus is quoted in The Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” In order to tell the difference we need wisdom – a key value in ancient Greek philosophy – and an understanding of how nature works based on the best available scientific knowledge of the day. We are then enjoined to accept that which we cannot change, including death, with equanimity while concentrating our attention solely on those things we can change.

The second discipline is often referred to as ‘action’ and centres on concern for others and how to behave in the world and draws on the virtue of Justice. Finally, we have the discipline of ‘assent’ which, as Pigliucci, writes ‘tells us how to react to situations, in the sense of either giving our assent to our initial impressions of a situation or withdrawing it’. Logic and Reason are the prime virtues behind this discipline. And these three disciplines lead into Stoic ethics which rest on a combination of intuitionism, empiricism and rationalism (Stoics are most definitely not moral sceptics!).

Throughout the book Pigliucci engages in an imaginary discussion with Epictetus as a guide through the dense thickets of modern life by applying the Stoic virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Compassion and Integrity in order to achieve eudaimonia. As we have seen, Stoics distance themselves from Cynics by allowing some external goods but they are also distinct from Socrates and Aristotle, both of whom assumed a degree of material comfort as part of their moral vision. For the Stoics, however, character is what matters ‘regardless of our circumstances’. Interestingly, this idea chimes with the Victorian notion of the gentleman, which they regarded as being accessible to any man regardless of circumstances, a view that may well have been influenced by Stoicism. On the other hand, although the Cynics allowed that their asceticism was available to everyone, the idea of living in a tub all your life – as Diogenes did – is not exactly appealing to modern sensibilities.

Stoicism also ‘makes room for both religious and unbelievers, united by their common understanding of ethics regardless of their diverging metaphysics’. It is interesting to note here that the Dalai Lama makes a strikingly similar point in his book An Appeal to the World when he writes: “I see with ever greater clarity that our spiritual well-being depends not on religion, but on our innate human natures, our natural affinity for goodness, compassion, and caring for others.”

Stoicism is an attractive ethical stance not least because of its grounding in the material world. Unlike Egoism it is clearly other-regarding and is a powerful guide for how an individual should live as a ‘citizen of the universe’ as Socrates put it. But still, it is founded on the individual and communitarians are likely to object to that position. However, it does not take a huge leap of imagination to see the Stoical individual emerging from his or her grounding in the collective, shaped and influenced by it but also evolving from it and, in turn, helping to shape the collective.


From chaos to anarchy!

What is anarchy? We all know that the word anarchy is interchangeable with words like chaos or violence and bombs. But is this a fair interpretation of political anarchism? Obviously no. Sure, anarchists have often been associated with violence but equally anarchism itself has a long history of philosophy that acts as a powerful critique of the State.

Anarchy encompasses a huge range of thought, and anarchists often resist attempts to define it because such attempts are, themselves, seen as being anti-anarchist. There are, however, some identifiable threads that range from the extreme egoistic individualism of Robert Nozick to the libertarian communism of Nestor Makhno. Often called the Platform, in the 1920s these anarchists wanted to distance themselves from the communist Bolsheviks and the extreme individualists. In her book The Government of No One Ruth Kinna writes that the Platformists ‘recognised that free individuality developed in harmony with social solidarity’.

A key moment in anarchist history came when Michael Bakunin split from Karl Marx and declared himself an anarchist. The latter agreed with much of the former’s materialistic analysis of society and in particular the impact of patterns of ownership and the driving force of class. But according to Kinna, Bakunin argued, presciently as it turned out that, Marx was ‘unable to see that as long as the State remained in tact, the revolution would be stunted’.

This feeds into the anarchist’s abhorrence of domination, which, as Kinna suggests, is ‘understood as a diffuse kind of power, embedded in hierarchy – pyramidal structure, pecking orders and chains of command – and in uneven access to economic or cultural resources’. But while the egoism of Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia is certainly anti-domination, his claim that the taxation of earnings by the State is ‘on a par with forced labor’ is unlikely to result in the kind of social solidarity so beloved of the socialist anarchists. It should be noted in addition that even Nozick acknowledges that ‘past injustices might be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive State in order to rectify them’.

Arguably, the more interesting kind of anarchism is what Noam Chomsky calls Libertarian Socialism. In On Anarchism he argues that, for example, the welfare state is a recognition that ‘every child has a right to have food, and to have health care and so on – and as I’ve been saying, those programs were set up in the nation-state system after a century of very hard struggle, by the labor movement, and the socialist movement’. It is also a recognition that individuals do not spring fully formed from the womb but are shaped by society or, as Marx put it: “It is not the consciousness of men that determine their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

There is another interesting strand in anarchist thought that attempts to address the perceived problem of chaos in the absence of the State and the claim by the Wiltshire-born 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes that without the State life for most people is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. The opposition to this view is eloquently expressed by Kniaz Petr Alekseovich Kropokin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, when he writes that ‘besides the law of Mutual Struggle there is in Nature the law of Mutual Aid, which, for the success of the struggle for life, and especially for the progressive evolution of the species, is far more important than the law of mutual contest’. Indeed, many evolutionary scientists today argue that altruism forms part of our genetic make-up even if it is always in conflict with our more self-interested tendencies.

With all this is mind, and leaning more toward Kropotkin and Chomsky than Nozick, we might find here a new impetus for the idea of a Universal Basic Income. If this was introduced then, it could be argued, that the individual is at least partly freed from the domination of the State and of the corporation while acknowledging that the State is needed to provide the UBI as well as universal services like health care, education and defence. And if it is true that we are social beings, not isolated individuals, and that our social being is partly informed by a regard for others, then it is not inevitable that the provision of a UBI would lead to chaos rather than – well – anarchy, properly understood.


When did they become so cruel?

“Then you too can dance the dance of insanity, that halfway house between catatonia and drooping, a dance that is devoid of spirit but wears a fixed grin, a hollow mask that was one used in a carnival.” Ece Temelkuran.

At the heart of Ece Temelkuran’s book How To Lose a Country is the claim that shameless populists like Trump and Erdogan have filled the causal void of neoliberalism with its ‘ideal’ of an attenuated human beings and the atomized society it has created.

“The ethical vacuum of neoliberalism,” she writes “its dismissal of the fact that human nature needs meaning and desperately seeks reasons to live, creates fertile ground for the invention of causes, and sometimes the most groundless or shallowest ones.” And again: “It is therefore possible to see right-wing populism as providing neoliberalism with its cause.”

Temelkuran is an award-winning Turkish novelist, journalist and political commentator who is an ardent critic of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, therefore, is forced to live in exile. Her book has the sub-title The 7 steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, which is a response to the complacency that sometimes arises in democracies, often revealing itself in the phrase ‘it couldn’t happen here’.

The first move against democracy, she writes, is to create a ‘movement’ that denies it is a party but consist of ‘real’ people as in ‘this is a movement, a new movement of real people beyond and above all political factions’. In the process the ‘real’ people end up ‘moving against their own interests, and against what are so obviously the wrong targets’ like immigrants rather than the ‘cruelty of free-market economics’. But what is it that makes some movements lead to populists and others – like Podemos, Occupy and Extinction Rebellion – do not? The answer, according to Telenkuran, is the infantilization of the ‘people’. Now this is interesting because it feeds into the narrative that the advertising industry has been hellbent for decades on infantilizing us so that, like children, we want everything now ‘on demand’, undermining whatever facility for delayed gratification we might once have had. It could be argued also that this is the drive behind attempts to reduce the use of cash in favour of plastic because it’s psychologically harder to part with money using the former than it is using the latter. Even some shops are now taking card payments only. And it is possibly behind the convenience and normalization advanced by the big tech companies that enable them to accumulate information about us, package it and sell it on to their real customers, the corporations, as a means to first predict and then manipulate our behaviour. If this sounds like the mad ravings of a conspiracy theorist, have no fear for there is no need for conspiracy – it’s just good business.

Anyway, according to Temelkuran, it’s the infantilization of the populace, or at least significant sections of it, that enables the populist because ‘once you infantilize the common political narrative, it becomes easier to mobilize the masses, and from then on you can promise them anything’. In much of this book Temelkuran seems to echo the sentiments expressed in Hannah Arendt’s epic The Origins of Totalitarianism, especially when the latter writes that the ‘masses’ who ‘for one reason or another have acquired the appetite for political organisation’ but are not ‘held together by a consciousness of a common interest’.

How does all this lead to the kind of mind-numbing cruelty and insensitivity that seems to thrive today? Well, says Temelkuran, and somewhat counter-intuitively, it begins with laughter that during the process of infantilization turns from resistance to bitter and sarcastic humour as joy is twisted into the grotesque. Three years after a dissident movement in Turkey that came to be known as the Gezi Spirit Temekuran writes that: “More importantly, the laughter that had been used as a tool to embrace diversity during the Gezi resistance became a tool to destroy and divide dissidents,”. It’s the point at which cruelty and loss of shame become a badge of honour and the question arises ‘how can they be so cruel?’

As the title of the book suggests there are five more steps to losing ones country and she sees these as her gift to other countries in the throws of, or at least in danger of, falling to populism. As such it does not offer a comprehensive solution to the problem she so clearly articulates. But towards the end of the book Temelkuran does write: “Whatever the answer is, it ought to be clear to all of us that it does not include the luxury of not taking action, namely political action.”

How To Lose A Country is published by 4th Estate.


What would you do if a violinist was plugged into your body?

AT a recent meeting Salisbury Democracy Café a thought experiment was proposed in order to discuss the question of transhumanism. So it might be fruitful and, perhaps, amusing to explore this philosophical device and some of the occasionally exotic examples.

So what, exactly, is a thought experiment? Basically it is an imaginary scenario designed to clarify an issue. One might say that it is similar to a laboratory experiment in that it attempts to remove variables in order to get to the heart of the matter.

Some of these thought experiments can seem ludicrous and once such is the ‘famous violinist’ devised by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, which is intended to be part of her defence of abortion. In this situation we are asked to imagine that we have been kidnapped and attached to a famous violinist with a fatal kidney problem, whose survival depends on his staying attached to our circulatory system. Thomson hopes that we will agree that the violinist, no matter how important he is, doesn’t have the right to be plugged into our body and that we would be justified in unplugging him. This particular thought experiment is in response to anti-abortionists who argue that a foetus is a person from the moment of conception.

Another far-fetched thought experiment is one dreamt up by the American philosopher Robert Nozick, and referenced in another article on this blog called What’s it like to be a vampire? which itself is a kind of thought experiment, in which he asks us to imagine that we have the chance to be plugged into a machine that will guarantee us a life that is much more pleasant than our current real life. The twist is that, once we have made the decision, we cannot change our mind. In this situation Nozick hopes that we would not choose to be plugged into the machine, thus demonstrating that there is more to life than pleasure. Neither of these scenarios are feasible, although it is possible to imagine that at some time a virtual reality machine might be available to approximate the hedonist experiment. But their plausibility is not the point – their aim is to elucidate a desired response or to clarify a position that can be distracted by side issues.

Another thought experiment is the famous trolley bus. In this situation we imagine a trolley bus that, if it carries on the main track, will kill five people. Fortunately, there is a side track, which will mean that, if the trolley driver decides to take it, only one person will die. What should he do? This thought experiment is used to elicit all sorts of moral reactions and there are seemingly endless variations on the basic model.

So, there you have it. Thought experiments can be useful to help clear the mind and clarify ones position – at the same time they can seem to be so contrived as to have little real-world value. What do you think?


What’s it like to be a vampire?

“One of the most important games of life, then, is the game of Revelation, a game played for the sake of the play itself.” L. A. Paul

What is it like to be a vampire? Nobody knows – unless you happen to be one of course! And that’s the whole point according to L. A Paul in her book Transformative Experience. You cannot make a rational choice to become a vampire because you don’t know what it’s like to be one until you are one.

It’s a startling thought experiment which, according to Paul, applies to many real life situations like contemplating parenthood or even a radical change of career. Normative rules of rationality break down here because no matter how much third-person empirical evidence one gathers, one cannot really know what many transformative experiences are like until one has subjectively felt it. Part of her argument is fuelled by a famous thought experiment in which Mary has been incarcerated in a monochrome room all her life. No matter how much information she gathers about colour, she cannot know what it is like to, for example, experience redness until such time as she leaves the room. So too, argues Paul, with many everyday experiences, when rational choice theory breaks down.

Interestingly, and perhaps a little oddly, Paul does not deploy perhaps the most famous thought experiment of them all in this field, devized by Robert Nozick and called the Experience Machine. In this scenraio scientists have invented a virtual reality machine which, once you are plugged in you a) cannot leave and b) gives you a perfectly happy life guaranteed to be happier than ‘real’ life.

Nozick anticipates that most people would choose not to be plugged in, thus demonstrating that there is more to life than happiness. But doesn’t this come up come up against Paul’s Transformative Experience problem? How could you make a rational choice to be plugged into the Experience Machine if you don’t what it would be like to be perfectly happy until you experience it? As Paul puts it ‘if we have to choose to have transformative experiences on the basis of preference revelation, that is, by preferring to discover the preferences we’d develop, then we must prefer to give up any current first-order preferences that conflict with the new preferences we’ll end up with. Many of these first-order preferences may be preferences that we think of, in some way, as defining our true selves’.

Paul refers to the importance of subjective values as being distinct from ‘merely valuing happiness or pleasure and pain’, thus obliquely referencing the Experience Machine. And she adds: “When we choose to have a transformative experience, we choose to discover its intrinsic experiential nature, whether that discovery involves joy, fear, peacefulness, happiness, fulfilment, sadness, anxiety, suffering or pleasure, or some complex mixture thereof.”

Paul’s solution to the problem of Transformative Experiences is to ‘draw on empirical findings when the right sorts of findings are available’. She adds: “But, crucially, in addition to managing the decision-theoretic worries using more sophisticated modelling techniques, resolving the problems raised by transformative experience also involves valuing experience for its own sake, that is, for the revelation it brings.”

The light that Paul shines on transformative experience is valuable but the conclusion is disappointing if all she is claiming is that it can sometimes be interesting to take the plunge and have a new experience. Surely, this is something that we all do from time-to-time while at other times we may be more risk-averse. Much depends, of course, on the nature of the risk. Nothing much hangs on sampling a new culture but Brexit is just the kind of transformative experience that Paul has in mind. Nobody knows what it will be like outside of the EU, despite protestations to the contrary on both sides. Perhaps this was a case where should have been more risk averse simply because we are gambling not with individual lives but with a country.


What’s the point of ignorance?

“The philosopher is the shepherd who tends the mixed flock of the possible on the highlands…” Michael Serres.

What’s the point of ignorance? Well, quite a lot as it turns out. We know that ignorance is everywhere. If we have a problem defining or describing English identity, then some might argue that a good place to start is ignorance. It seems as though some people relish being ignorant, they even wear it as a badge of honour – after all, we’ve had enough of experts haven’t we? Even though we live in an age of unprecedented access to information, we also live in what some people are calling the Age of Ignorance.

As Daniel R. DeNicola writes in his extraordinary book Understanding Ignorance: “Tyrants and other advocates of authoritarian systems have long appreciated the advantages of an ignorant constituency.” By contrast, he writes ‘democracies – at least in theory – rest on the pillar of an enlightened citizenry’ but now ‘the problem of political ignorance…is so severe that the ideal of an informed citizenry seems quaint’.

Such views are commonplace these days. Most people who regard themselves as educated and well-informed decry the seeming advance of ignorance on all fronts. It could be argued, of course, that ignorance has always been with us and that in days gone by it was much worse. But maybe the difference today is that, rather than being a stigma or something to be ashamed of, ignorance, at least in some quarters, is regarded as being almost a matter to be proud of, something to be celebrated – as epitomized by the drooling troll.

But Understanding Ignorance goes much further than these commonplaces to argue that ignorance is a permanent state of humanity and, indeed, the force behind our search for knowledge or, as DeNicola prefers to call it, understanding.

Almost inevitably, DeNicola draws on what he calls ‘Rumsfeldian parsing’ – that is 1) known knowns 2) known unknowns 3) unknown unknowns, and the one that Rumsfeld left out 4) unknown knowns, which refers to knowledge that is, or has become, subconscious, like riding a bike. These referents were not invented by Rumsfeld, of course, but were summarized nearly a decade before him by the philosopher Ann Kerwin. It is the unknown unknowns that attracts DeNicola most, including his most piercing metaphor of the horizon of ignorance. In this world he also uses simile when he describes knowledge, or understanding, as being akin to an unstable island in a sea of ignorance as far as the eye can see. But at least as we cast our nets over the sea we may gain new understanding or find new islands to colonize. We may even move towards the horizon, but as we do, of course, the horizon also moves and what lies beyond is the unfathomable, boundless emptiness of unknown unknowns. Even if we move beyond our immediate horizon into space our knowledge is bounded by the observable universe, that which is determined by the length of time it has taken for light to reach us – and so on.

In this context DeNicola writes of what he calls ‘improved ignorance’. We may refine our ignorance by ‘specifying more precisely a known unknown but in the process new questions open up that could not even have been asked before and were therefore unknown unknowns and now become known unknowns. The point here is not that the vast region of unknown unknowns has been reduced, only that our horizon of ignorance has shifted.

It is in this horizon of ignorance – which, incidentally, emphatically rejects some scientists’ claim that there will one day be a theory of everything – that the philosopher thrives. He writes that ‘genuine philosophical understanding recognises an ultimate escape from ignorance as an impossibility, a vain attempt to clutch the horizon’. We should introduce a word of caution here because, although the horizon metaphor is a powerful one, it does not in itself express the truth of the matter. One could argue, for example, that since what lies beyond the horizon is unknown unknowns DeNicola cannot possibly state with any certainty that it, or at least most of it, cannot come with the purlieu of human understanding. At the same time, however, our experience of quantum physics, which famously no-one truly understands, and our exploration of the vastness of the universe (or universes!) does lend weight to DeNicola’s central claim.

But DeNicola is no apologist for ignorance and in the final pages of this important book – which is only 208 pages long but itself contains enough insights to fill its own universe – DeNicola returns to what he earlier calls ‘socially constructed ignorance’ and appeals to an ‘epistemology of resistance’. Specifically, he writes: “The appropriate response is now coalescing: a shift from the individual knower to the epistemic community, with a correlative shift from epistemic autonomy to forms of epistemic dependence.” And then this powerful plea: “Social epistemologists of varying stripes have brought attention to sources and forms of socially constructed ignorance, to the privileges and power that permit certain types of wilful ignorance, and to the need for an ‘epistemology of resistance’ that reveals and disrupts structures of epistemic oppression.”

This book is erudite and important, treading warily at times and sometimes boldly the porous boundary between our fragile and ever shifting knowledge and the seemingly infinite field of ignorance. It would be depressing if it did not combine a celebration of the knowable with ‘the horizon of the unknowable’ and a call to arms against the construction by the powerful of wilful ignorance.

Understanding Ignorance is published by The MIT Press.

Dickie Bellringer.