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.


What’s the point of boredom?

Well, not much really – but it turns out that it’s quite interesting to find out how and when it arises.

According to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary boredom is a result of ‘unnatural detachment’ characteristic of the left hemisphere of the brain. Indeed, the whole book is an epic exploration of the battle between the left and right hemispheres. Traditionally, the left hemisphere has been seen as the rational side and superior to the frippery of the right. However, McGilchrist turns this view on its head, so to speak, arguing that that the right side is the more holistic, organic and insightful, and should actually be the senior partner while the left should be seen as its invaluable analytical servant.

Just as an example of his argument – and it should be said that the book covers a huge range of topics and adduces a vast amount of evidence to support his case – he writes that the left’s need for certainty leads to ‘devitalisation’. The author draws on the work of Patricia Spacks in her book Boredom: the Literary History of a State of Mind in which she makes the claim that boredom arose in the 18th century and relates it to ‘the dreariness of non-engagement’. Now, as with so much of McGilchrist’s book, one has to be cautious here. Spack’s book is about the literary manifestation of boredom and is not a sociological treatise. Taking her too literally produces absurd claims that boredom didn’t exist before the 18th century. But, with that caveat in mind, McGilchrist goes on to write: “I would connect the rise of the concept of boredom with an essentially passive view of experience; a view of vitality as mediated by novelty, a stimulant force which comes from the outside, rather as the power supply comes to the computer.” His reference here to a computer is particularly apposite because it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to understand how the modern person seems to crave external stimulation, whether it be from television through to the continual absorption of social media and self-confirming algorithms. It’s the sight of the modern zombies, plugged in and head bowed in silent homage to the tech giants as they check their ‘phones – completely oblivious of the real world around them and rendered stupefied by the external stimulant.

McGilchrist makes his point most clearly when he writes: “Devitalisation leads to boredom and boredom, in turn, to sensationalism.” And again: “Since the rise of capitalism in the 18th century, when according to Patrician Spacks boredom as such began (and here we need to recall the earlier caveat), an appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitement has lain at the heart of successful bourgeoise society, with it’s need above all to be getting and spending money.” This analysis seems to speak to our times as McGilchrist builds his argument that the Servant (the left side) is making a play to take over the Master (the right). There is a sense in which McGilchrist appears to refer to the two sides of the brain as though they were two characters in a book or play, and this takes on an epic, and possibly strained, sweep when he scales this up to involve such movements as the Reformation, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism and post-modernism. He can also be guilty of cherry-picking at times and this is most apparent when he picks on the two ultra-rationalists Jeremy Bentham and Rene Descartes to make his point, while ignoring those who tend to undermine his case like Voltaire, Hume and D’Alembert. The latter thinker, in response to similar criticisms of the Enlightenment, rejoined: “In sum, even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point to 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 in addition.” And as Anthony Gottlieb writes in The Dream of Enlightenment ‘because the philosophes repeatedly stressed the weakness of the human mind it is probably misleading to refer to the Age of Reason, which ought to be the Age of Trying to be more Reasonable’, although Gottlieb acknowledges that this would be a less than snappy title.

There is also an element of the ‘just-so’ about the book when his analysis of the relationship between the left and right sides of the brain sometimes just happens to fit his criticism of the modern world.

Nevertheless, and despite some major flaws, The Master and His Emissary makes a seductive case that seems to underpin many of the perceived ills of modernity. It’s the sort of book that needs to be taken as a whole. That does not mean papering over the cracks but seeing them as part of this flawed but majestic edifice. If we follow McGilchrist’s advice and try to read the book with the two sides of the brain working in harmony, then it has the potential to be, if not life-changing exactly, then definitely perception-shifting.


Is Liberalism dead? Was it ever alive?

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

“Taxation of earnings is on a par with forced labour.” Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia.

During a recent Salisbury Democracy Café the interesting question ‘Is Liberalism dead?’ was posed. Much depends on the definition of Liberalism. Some people seem to mean a rather wishy-washy tolerance epitomised by the pejorative term ‘bleeding heart liberal’. But political Liberalism is very far from being wishy-washy as the quote above by the American libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick attests. The most fundamental expression of this position is given by what is known 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 the individual.

There have, however, been many attempts to create what might be called Social Liberalism, which in turn can be seen either as attempts to avoid Thomas Hobbes’s bleak conclusion that individuals should willingly submit to the power of a strong sovereign in order to protect them against a life that is ‘ nasty, brutish and short’, or the slide to Nozick’s extreme and equally unpleasant libertarianism. The social contract theory of Joh n Rawls in A Theory of Justice is probably the most influential work in the field. At the heart of this book is a kind of thought experiment he calls the Original Position or the Veil of Ignorance in which we are asked to imagine what sort of society would be chosen if we did not know certain facts about ourselves, particularly our social location and natural endowments. From this position Rawls deduces that most people would choose two principles: First – “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all”; second – “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) to be the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

One of the most serious objections to the Original Position coming from the communitarian tradition, however, is that it assumes a certain conception of the self as individuated before any sense of entanglement with social or communal considerations. This is a serious problem for those who believe that the creation of the self is inextricably linked to the collective, which itself is shaped by the individual. To the communitarian it makes no sense to assume that the individual springs fully formed from the womb without being at least partly shaped by its environment and communal links. From the political point of view this means that the individual emerges from and thrives in a communal environment in which certain universal goods like health, education and transport are communally pooled. And, as Erich Fromm wrote in Beyond the Chains of Illusion ‘the most important factor for the development of the individual is the structure and values of society into which he has been born’.

In this context, then, it could be argued that Rawls’s Original Position is an intellectually tortuous and, ultimately, unsuccessful device to save Liberalism from the bleak visions of Hobbes and Nozick or, indeed, an unsustainable reliance on an individualism cast adrift from its social grounding. And, of course, the same objections could be made against Nozick. It could be argued that communitarianism is a much more grounded vision of the individual and one that calls into question the fundamental principles of Liberalism, properly understood. Indeed, the individual cast adrift above Friedrich’s Sea of Fog may be a better metaphor than the Veil of Ignorance.