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!