Recent Posts

Subscribe to RSS feed

Javascript must be enabled to view this email address

The Problem of Labels (Especially Political Ones)


I have been tuning into the latest misadventure of our President with more horror than usual. His reading of the events in Charlotteville is plain and simply wrong. His being our President makes the wrongness even more egregious. Once the painful response to the wrongness of his position settled down, I turned to all the comments about the situation coming from the media of all stripes. that is from “both sides.”

What I see is more evidence of the unreality of public (and probably much of private) life in America today. The reality of Charlottesville is that Nazism is absolutely not acceptable. Nazism was an aberration of humanity that was and cannot be justified on any basis. It is simply and plainly evil and wrong. To confuse the issue by employing labels like alt-right, alt-left, antifa, identity politics, or any other political name is simply just as wrong as is the Nazism that showed up in Charlottesville. I recommend an editorial article by Paul Waldman in the Washington post for those who want another similar view.

Extremism on the right is not, as some of the more conservative media claimed (e.g. this WSJ editorial), a response to anything, certainly not to the so called “identity politics” of the left. Extremism is simply what its name connotes: active adherence to a set of beliefs that either are far from reality or involve negating the beliefs and legitimacy of others. Active means taking steps to suppress these others. It’s only cause is the beliefs that it expresses in action. One of the most egregious incidents of extremism in history was the Inquisition and the Crusades under the Catholic Church. It is clearly a case where a powerful institution took its beliefs too far. It’s unimaginable that a Pope today would try to defend its past actions by invoking some external cause. It’s cause was was nothing more than concerns about failures to adhere to its dogma and potential consequences of that. Those that would defend Trump’s action and the causal event in Charlottesville as stemming from a response to anything at all are just as guilty as Trump is in not getting the morality straight.

I think the morality is this case is quite clearly in the realm of the deontological, while the excuses based on any argument are from the other major branch of ethics, consequentialist. Deontology focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions, not on the rightness or wrongness of the consequences or on the character and behaviors of the actor (virtue ethics). America is founded and grounded by deontology, not any other ethical basis. Unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the epitome of an absolute belief that obligates anyone who would identify (sic) her-or himself as an American to accept it unconditionally.

There is much being written and said about this situation, but I think brevity is more appropriate because the real issue is very simple and straightforward. Any action that ignores the ethical basis of the nation is wrong. Full stop. Anyone who tries to defend such actions using any form of utilitarian or consequential excuses is wrong. Full stop. There are many who understand the importance of keeping moral arguments clear. I plead that you speak up. The Founding Fathers, slaveholders or not, gave us a clear moral ground for our Nation. The Constitution, to which the President and the Congress take an oath to follow and defend, means little without the moral grounding of the Declaration of Independence. Where are you?

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 16, 2017 10:05 PM ::

Comments Please, But Read This First

spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of "recent posts" list on the right hand side. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 16, 2017 8:56 AM ::

Context and the Brain


The divided brain model suggests that the two worlds that show up in our brains display many opposing features. Today, I want to focus on just one pair: contextual (right) vs. decontextualized (left). Flourishing arises from a contextual perception of the world, one that exposes the relationships of the actor to the world. Context is the source of meaning. It relates the content of whatever shows up in the conscious field to one’s historical experience. Meaning is basically historical. It arises in the temporal flow of living.

A mere snapshot of what is out there is simply a collection of objects. Each one is distinctive only to the extent it can be recognized as something already familiar. Each may have meaning related to what the object is, but not as to how it fits into the story of one’s life. That kind of meaning requires a historical context. What was going on the last time I encountered some or all of the objects I apprehend at this moment? What was I doing? Do I remember why I did what I did? Were my actions effective? How did I feel? The answers to such questions form a story from which meaning can be derived.

I am writing this from Maine, sitting in front of my computer, but able to look around it onto Maquoit Bay and to my boat that is moored in front of our cottage. I can describe my boat in great detail: the brand, how long, how much draft, the motor horsepower, etc. Although I now know all those details, having owned it for about 10 years, none of this provides any of the wonderful meaningful experiences it has given me. Experience describes the story of how I have been relating to the world and what part I retain. Any part of the actual events that is not retained is not part of the experience. Like any story, there is a central plot line and many details that embellish it. Like the objects out, the bare plot line is not meaningful without the context.

Simply remembering that I went out in the boat yesterday is not meaningful. Where I went and what I did add meaning. Did I go fishing? Did I catch any fish? Did I see an eagle this trip. How did I feel? To exist as a human being, experience must be contextual. The context provides the connection to the world, and that connection is what mades me fully human, beyond simply being a living creature like other forms of life.

Meaningful experiences are the product of the right brain, according to McGilchrist. I have written about him and his work in the last few posts, so will not repeat what is already there. The contextual world that shows up moment by moment is the present. McGilchrist says the right brain presents the world to the acting, living individual. Interesting uses of the same word to mean show to, a grammatical tense, and also to a moment in the passage of time. If what shows up is familiar, that is, has meaning to me, I draw on my past experience in picking my response, if I intend to act.

Acts originating in the right brain correspond to the existential mode of authenticity. I own the action as if there was some historically based person in charge. Such actions are the source of flourishing. They are always contextually connected to the present, although they may utilize strategies coming from the past. I think that Antonio Damasio’s idea of an autobiographical self fits the right brain. Autobiographical implies some sort of contextualized story, not simply a collection of unrelated decontextualized facts. I haven’t reviewed his work to see if this fits but plan to do that shortly.

I haven’t yet written about the left-brain in this post, but it is always looking to get into the game. McGilchrist writes as if there is a power struggle between right and left to determine who is in charge at the present moment. Greatly compressing McGilchrist’s writing and taking a lot of chances that I am misinterpreting it, the left is always hanging around waiting for a chance to take over.

The left, unlike the right, lacks context. It has abstracted the familiar experiences of the right into disparate objects and into conceptual categories. It knows what a boat is, but not how it fits into any real situation. It thinks it knows what beauty is, but only in some abstract way. It made explicit what the right understands implicitly. How this happens may be clear in the book, but I am still working to understand. I guess the process might go something like this.

The right always captures the present moment. It sends the contextually rich situation over to the left as a courtesy. If the situation is unfamiliar, the left will send it back without anything happening. The right is always in charge when someone encounters a new, unfamiliar scene. The “I” that acts from this side is open to new situations and is willing to try new possibilities that might fit the scene. If the left believes that it recognizes enough of the objects out there to categorize the scene as something it knows or can construct from its accumulated facts and concepts, it somehow takes over the action. The contextual richness of the right is missing; the concreteness of the present is replaced by an abstracted approximation. There is no I that owns the action; it is the result of some analytical, timeless process. Maybe it will fit and certainly does much of the time in situations that have been repeated so often that the abstraction can match the real situation closely. But if the situation departs in some ways from the one being modeled in the left-brain, the action may not lead to the intended outcomes.

What degree of familiarity, that is abstracted content, empowers the left and shuts out the right is not clear to me at this point in my understanding of McGilchrist, but some mechanism or value must be involved. Culture and its values may influence this process. McGilchrist argues the inverse; the relative strength of the two hemispheres influences the culture and its values. It is clear, in any case, that modernity since the Enlightenment and even earlier has preferred the left-brain’s analytic, decontextualizing process, the heart of the scientific method from which most of the facts that we “know” is derived. The richness of actual human experience with its subjective set of feeling and emotions and meaningful context has become secondary in the running of modern societies.

It should be obvious what gets lost. Authenticity and flourishing are among the first victims. The left hemisphere of individual and of some metaphorical collective brain has become so filled with facts, concepts, and categories that it believes it knows everything. Everything is familiar enough to act in an analytic, context-free manner all the time. The left so dominates the right that meaning has all but disappeared, resulting in the “disenchantment of the world” that Weber so eloquently observed. Since the topic of the blog is now flourishing, it is obvious where I am going. We have gone too far and need to redesign our institutions and jigger our values to allow the right-brain to recover its mastery. It is the side that makes us distinctly human in allowing meaning to enter our lives.

More to come in future posts. I am off for a week to Umbria to celebrate the 75th birthday of a very dear and close friend. The last draft of my book has been sent to the publisher and I now await the results of a long period of decision-making and, hopefully, final revisions.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 2, 2017 10:52 PM ::

Flourishing and the Right-brain

right brain

After a much longer time than I had planned, I have sent off the heavily revised manuscript of my new book to the publisher. I consider the time well spent because I was able to integrate materials from McGilchrist’s, The Master and his Emissary, the book about the divided brain I wrote briefly about in my last blog. While its findings about the brain did not affect my basic theses about flourishing, it provided much additional evidence in support. It made clear that flourishing is fundamentally about living in the present moment under the influence of the right brain. It is not anything possessed by the body. It pertains to the degree one is connected to the outside world, not to the re-presentations of the world offered up by the left-brain.

McGilchrist’s argument that the left has come to dominate the right helps explain why what I call flourishing has largely disappeared from our modern cultures. Operating out of the left-brain is essential for effective life within the key institutions, like work, law, sports, or games, or any one where following the rules is critical. Since the left-brain is the storage bin for such explicit rules, it rules the roost in these instances. In other institutions, like family, school, friendship, rules are looser and there is room for creativity, a right-brain function. Sharing brain hemispheres can enliven the passive connections of the left that show up places like work or school. The right-brain can also break through the deadening that social media and associated devices force onto living relationships, like friendship.

The emergence of interest in Eastern mindfulness practices, I suspect, has been, in some part, a consequence of the unbalance between the hemispheres. Its attractiveness comes from its advertised ability to produce peacefulness and mitigate suffering, stress and other consequences of modern Western life. Whatever bodily changes it produces, mindfulness clearly engages the right brain and connects the actor to the world of the present. It uses the ability of the right to sustain attention to the present surroundings and makes connections to what is happening outside the body instead of inside. The central Buddhist theme of non-attachment or giving-up-the-world seems to me to point to the world of the left-hemisphere, that is the accumulation of all the decontextualized stuff from the past in favor of moving to the right with its attention on the present moment.

I think this model will explain reasons behind the success and failures of the myriad of change programs and how-to books about personal satisfaction. Those that add muscle to the right can work and those that reinforce the left will fail to have any lasting impact. But most important to me is the relation of the divided brain to flourishing. The simplicity of the argument has me wondering if it can be true, but here it is. Flourishing is manifest in action being run by the right, not the left, hemisphere. One primary reason is the right’s connectedness to the outside real world. McGilchrist calls this relationship “betweenness,” a nice turn of phrase. The right is the source of meaning; the left strips meaning away from the present moment by taking everything out of context as it generalizes and categorizes.

People show up as alive, not the lifeless avatars of the left. The actor owns whatever action follows the acquisition of the present world. It is not some routine from the left that appears to fit the moment, but has been dredged up from the past. All of these aspect of right-brain action fit Heidegger’s authentic mode of being, which I had already connected to flourishing in my previous work. Now it seems a biological process lies beneath Heidegger’s philosophical derivation. This relationship only underscores his brilliance in thinking as he did without any knowledge of how the brain works.

My absence for so long is due to the need to go back to my essentially completed book and interweave the relationship of the divided brain model to flourishing. It has been time well spent. Flourishing is quite clearly a particular mode of life; distinct from what Heidegger calls indifference, a left-brain dominated mode of being. This is the mode in which we spent a lot of our everyday life embedded in institutional cultures. Institutions are constituted by, first, assigning powers to objects, including human beings, and, then, establishing rules governing actions within the institution. Games are a clear example of an institution. The game is defined by creating physical artifacts with specific functional features, say a chessboard and the pieces, plus a set of rules that govern the pay and the conditions that declare how winning is determined, say, mate in chess.

Other examples of institutions that shape our lives are thing-like concepts like family, school, business work, citizenship, and so on. Society provides general rules and roles that go with each one. We can choose roles, but have to follow the rules, as least in general. Life within institutions is shaped by the left-brain which stores up all the rules and associated normal behaviors. The left is the storehouse of the familiar, the situations that recur over and over. Initially, when these situations were new and unfamiliar, the right was in charge inventing behaviors to cope. At some point the control gets passed over to the left, but before that, actor are learning from the experience. In a sense, the actor flourishes during this time because he or she is actively connected to the world and owns the action as uniquely fitted to the concrete present moment. Flourishing does not equate with success, only with the mode of being. Success depends on the degree the actor’s mental depiction matches the real, external world. The right brain always does a better job at matching because it captures a holistic, organic snapshot, full of context, but it never exactly presents the world.

The divided brain model, in addition to building a ground for flourishing, also points to ways to enhance its possibility of showing up. McGilchrist argues, I think quite convincingly, that the balance between the hemispheres has shifted over time with significant effects on societal culture. Modernity has become highly dominated by the left, hollowing out meaning and framing an abstract, lifeless world in which we live. The balance can be shifted by adding to the right’s muscle, metaphorically speaking, strengthening its attentional capabilities relative to the left’s. Mindfulness exercises can do this as I mentioned earlier. So can technology that has been designed to wake up the right side, rather than put it to sleep, as is the case with much of the everyday technology we use.

It is certain that quite some time will pass before my book shows up in print, so I want to begin to put some of the key ideas on the blog, hopefully for discussion and feedback.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 28, 2017 12:45 PM ::

The Master and his Emissary


I mentioned I had come across a very interesting book that has enabled me to ground my arguments in my new manuscript even further than I had previously. I did not mean to keep the book a secret. I was waiting until a better time to discuss it. The book is The Master and his Emissary; The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press), by Iain McGilchrist. The author is a British psychiatrist and Professor of English. The book is an amazing amalgam of his scientific thinking and ability to present ideas that challenge one’s thinking about how we do think.

McGilchrist revivifies the lateralization theory of how the brain works, developed in the 1960’s but Roger Sperry and his colleagues. Working with patients with seizures whose left and right hemispheres had been separated by cutting the corpus callosum, the band that normally connects the two halves, they found that each side functioned differently from the other. This led to a pop psychological theory about brain-sidedness, similar to handedness, where each side performs differently. The diagram illustrates the conventional assignment of functions to the hemispheres.


The idea has persisted, but not without much skepticism among neuroscientists. After reading McGilchrist’s book, I, for one, am sold on the model of two distinct hemispheres, not quite as shown in the diagram, but close. His goes further and claims that the pattern of historic cultural behaviors has been shaped by whichever hemisphere dominates. In particular, he argues that the present culture of the West is the result of left-brain dominance, whereas the more fundamental situation for humans is the opposite. The brain and the world interact in a kind of hermeneutic circle. The state of the brain determines what kind of world we see, that is what we pick out to focus our attention and intentions upon. McGilchrist writes

We bring about a world in consciousness that is partly what is given, and partly what we bring, something that comes into being through this particular conjunction and no other. And the key to this is the kind of attention we pay to the world.

The kind of world we perceive and our subsequent behavior depend on which side is at work. The left side produces a mechanistic model of the world; the right a holistic one. The left is analytic and utilitarian; the right caring and empathetic. If you have been following my own work, you would see these two sides as representing two paradigms, modernity and a yet-to-be named paradigm of caring. Flourishing, the fulfillment of human potential, can exist only in the latter. I have come to this conclusion based largely on philosophical and sociological arguments. What I find so remarkable about his book is that it lays a solid foundation for the existence of these two contrasting worlds in the brain and its two different patterns of perception and response. McGilchrist argues that the right side is the Master in the sense that caring is the more fundamental human disposition to the world, but has become overmatched by the left. We need both to survive and evolve culturally as the left allows us to construct the technological world we have come to inhabit.

The right captures the present moment in its context-rich fullness. It feeds the left as experiences become familiar through repetition. It is the site of the present, the new. McGilchrist lists the following as attributes of the world it creates: presenting, new, whole, integration, context, things/individuals, personal, living, and contemporaneous. He finds that his model parallels Heidegger’s sense of Being. Heidegger speaks about “presencing” as a verb, that is, bringing the whole immediate world into consciousness. I find this quite the same as the author’s use of “presenting” as in the idea of the right side displaying a picture of the immediate world with all of its context and integrity to an imaginary actor sitting in the skull.

The left “re-presents” old facts that have been abstracted from experience and generalized. It is like a scientist who breaks down phenomena into small life-less pieces, each with its own set of features. The left cannot make sense out of incoming sensory inputs except by some sort of comparison with whatever is already known and resides there. The list of its attributes includes: re-presenting, known, part, division, abstraction, and categories, impersonal, non-living and timeless. The left-hemisphere-dominated human is the familiar Homo sapiens or Homo economicus or Homo faber, all names given to our species by various scholars. The right-hemisphere-dominated human sees and behaves so differently that it might justify giving it a distinct species name, Homo amans, coined by Humberto Maturana, to describe the distinctive loving, caring, connected stance. I have started to use the term Homo caritas.

While McGilchrist serves as a rich source of understanding as to how modern humans are the way they are, the key point for me is his argument that dominance has shifted over time. I find no mention of any genetic cause for the choice of dominant hemisphere. If we can go from right to left, I see no fundamental obstacle to reversing the balance. As messy as the world of today has become, I can remain hopeful that we can work our way back to a right-hemisphere world of care and context, and via that, the possibility of flourishing.

More to come.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 7, 2017 4:30 PM ::

I Am Fine, But the World Is Not

moeny outweighs

I know I haven’t been posting for several months. I have been hard at work on my book, making revisions to the manuscript. I have been reading a very interesting book that has both solidified my arguments, but also forced me to do some serious editing. I will be discussing the book shortly as I plan to start my regular posting schedule again. I am very tempted everyday to write about the political situation, but there is very little to say that isn’t being said elsewhere. I do not think a lot of repetition is a good idea as, if others are like me, it begins to dull the senses.

I will make one comment tonight. I disagree with the many articles that carry a headline like, “We should be taking care of the Planet.” The Planet will do just fine, no matter how we treat her. She has been around for perhaps 4.5 billion years and will be here for several billion more. She has survived both very hot and very cold periods.

We should be concerned about all life on Earth, however. Life is a miracle and we should respect that extraordinary feature. Miracles do happen all by themselves in complex systems when conditions become such that qualities and processes emerge as if by magic.

We have a responsibility to understand the processes that bring forth miracles like life itself and to do as little as possible to interfere with them. To stop the efforts to understand them or ignore what we already know about them is immoral. To fail to act to the extent of our present knowledge is a crime as some life, human and non-human, is known to be in great danger of being wiped out. Each and every one of us humans, living today, owes his or her existence to that miracle that occurred several billion years ago. To the extent that we continue to act as if it never happened and that we have some sort of privilege to ignore it, we are all guilty of a crime that has yet to be named.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 4, 2017 9:42 PM ::

An Important Insight about Scientific Truth

lies v truths.jpeg

I found myself reading an old (1944) paper by Erich Fromm while I was digging into one of his books, The Sane Society, I have just discovered. Having read a lot of Fromm, who is one of my prime sources of inspiration, I was delighted to find yet another equally meaningful work. I won’t comment on the book’s main theme here, but will say that his questioning the sanity of societies like ours is as valid in 2017 as it was in 1955 when the book was published.

The following excerpt comes from an earlier paper of his that Fromm used for this book. The paper, “Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis,” starts with a discussion of scientific truths, which I find very relevant almost 75 years after the paper was published.*

The history of science is a history of erroneous statements. Yet these erroneous statements which mark the progress of thought have a particular quality: they are productive. And they are not just errors either; they are statements, the truth of which is veiled by misconceptions, is clothed in erroneous and inadequate concepts. They are rational visions which contain the seed of truth, which matures and blossoms in the continuous effort of mankind to arrive at objectively valid knowledge about man and nature. Many profound insights about man and society have first found expression in myths and fairy tales, others in metaphysical speculations, others in scientific assumptions which have proven to be incorrect after one or two generations.

It is not difficult to see why the evolution of human thought proceeds in this way. The aim of any thinking human being is to arrive at the whole truth, to understand the totality of phenomena which puzzle him. He has only one short life and must want to have a vision of the truth about the world in this short span of time. But he could only understand this totality if his life span were identical with that of the human race. It is only in the process of historical evolution that man develops techniques of observation, gains greater objectivity as an observer, collects new data which are necessary to know if one is to understand the whole. There is a gap, then, between what even the greatest genius can visualize as the truth, and the limitations of knowledge which depend on the accident of the historical phase he happens to live in. Since we cannot live in suspense, we try to fill out this gap with the material of knowledge at hand, even if this material is lacking in the validity which the essence of the vision may have.

Every discovery which has been made and will be made has a long history in which the truth contained in it finds a less and less veiled and distorted expression and approaches more and more adequate formulations. The development of scientific thought is not one in which old statements are discarded as false and replaced by new and correct ones; it is rather a process of continuous reinterpretation of older statements, by which their true kernel is freed from distorting elements. The great pioneers of thought, of whom Freud is one, express ideas which determine the progress of scientific thinking for centuries. Often the workers in the field orient themselves in one of two ways: they fail to differentiate between the essential and the accidental, and defend rigidly the whole system of the master, thus blocking the process of reinterpretation and clarification; or they make the same mistake of failing to differentiate between the essential and the accidental, and equally rigidly fight against the old theories and try to replace them by new ones of their own, In both the orthodox and the rebellious rigidity, the constructive evolution of the vision of the master is blocked. The real task, however, is to reinterpret, to sift out, to recognize that certain insights had to be phrased and understood in erroneous concepts because of the limitations of thought peculiar to the historical phase in which they were first formulated. We may feel then that we sometimes understand the author better than he understood himself, but that we are only capable of doing so by the guiding light of his original vision.

A couple of comments on why I find this interesting. The second paragraph is an argument that part of the essence of being human, as opposed to just any old animal, is “to understand to understand the totality of phenomena which puzzle him.” In the book, he expands on this, arguing that the key feature that separates humans from all the other animal species is our existential longing, the drive to live in a meaningful manner. When we live in a way that is incoherent with that, as he argues we do in the insane modern world, we, as individuals fail to attain the potential of our humanness. We do not and cannot flourish in the language I use. Deliberate lying about the world only pushes us further away.

The second comes in the last paragraph in the part I have bolded. I read this as saying that scientific facts are historically situated and reflect “reinterpretations” that have been made over time. If some facts have persisted without such reinterpretations, they may no longer truthfully represent the world. This thought is central to my critique of modernity and lies at the base of my argument that two basic “scientific” models about the nature of the world and its human beings need such reinterpretation in the light of what we now know about both of them some four centuries after these ‘truths” were uttered. The modern scientific establishment continues to defend the masters of these beliefs, Rene Descartes and Adam Smith, and so continues to block progress toward truths that are critical in acting in today’s world.

  • American Sociological Review (1944) 9 (4), pp. 380-384

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 19, 2017 10:36 PM ::

Keep Digging Deeper

reality slaps

John Searle, the American philosopher of the mind I often draw on, wrote that institutional facts are “the glue that holds civilization together.” I find this assertion very important in this time when our civilization seems to becoming unglued. To understand this, you need, first, to know what Searle means by institutional facts.

Searle divides the world of facts into two classes, brute facts and institutional facts. Brute facts are assertions about manifestly real states. I am a male. My house is in Lexington, MA. The Earth is approximately spherical and about 93 million miles from the Sun. Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second. The validity of such facts can be established by observation. Negative brute facts, like “I do not own a dog,” are important, but cannot be positively validated by observation because it is always possible that the observer has missed something. I will come back to the role such facts play in social life but want to turn to the other class now.

Institutional facts are statements about the world that have been entirely created in language and subsequently have taken on the same sense of reality as brute facts convey. Institutional facts are created by a form of speech act, Declarations. The words uttered create a new reality that did not previously exist. The Constitution of the United States created a new polity. Naming my son Tom creating a new discrete individual. A football referee signaling a touchdown changes the world for the players and spectators. The game of football is an institution created entirely in language. Its rulebook contains 71 pages of detailed regulations and definitions. I would guess there are about a thousand individual entries. The Commissioner has the authority to make the rules. Referees have been delegated authority to enforce them. This year, questionable calls by a referee are remotely adjudicated by the Commissioner’s agents.

Virtually every intentional action that every human being undertakes occurs within an institution and is guided by the rules and powers associated with the institution. Individuals and inanimate objects are endowed with powers as part of establishing the institution. A policeman is just another human that has been empowered to make arrests. Neither “policeman” nor “arrest” has any meaning at all outside of the declaration that created the new distinction. Winning is always an institutional fact, differing only in details from setting to setting.

The process by which newborns become full-fledged Homo sapiens is primarily one of acquiring brute and institutional facts about the world. We learn about the isness or existential status of objects and processes as we are socialized and educated. “I am John” eventually becomes a pointer to my body. I learn the difference between an apple and an orange. As I experience different situations in different institutional settings, I accumulate the facts. I learn the rules and roles governing activities at the dinner table, in my schoolroom, later in the workplace and public arena, and so on. The entire body of such knowledge forms a network of facts that guide all of my social actions throughout my intentional life, the part that corresponds to my being sufficiently socialized and learned to be held responsible for my actions.

At the same time I acquire a set of strategies about how to respond to the factual context I am constantly being exposed to. These accumulate similarly to the facts to form a background of capabilities I call on whenever I decide to act intentionally. Reactive, unintentional emotional responses are formed differently. They are very important in social life, but I will not discuss them further in this post. The network of institutional and brute fact conforms to Gilbert Ryle’s category, knowing that; and the background of capabilities to his term, knowing how.

Since most of our life is spent in institutional settings with other actors, our actions are largely coordinated by the institutional rules and roles. If all are followed, action tends to move effortlessly in the desired direction. Whenever someone fails to follow a rule or act out of character (beyond the established, legitimate role), trouble generally follows. The smooth flow of activity stops; the actors may get angry or frustrated. Coercive means may have to be employed to get the system working again. Simultaneously, I may begin to question the competence of a co-worker to do what she was expected to. I might begin to wonder about the trustworthiness of my boss after I discover that he hasn’t been straightforward with me. I could observe that the environment has changed since we learned the rules and roles, so, perhaps, they no longer correspond with brute reality.

Reality will always win the game. No matter how firmly we believe we are acting according to both brute and institutional facts, our outcomes will depart from our expectations if these facts are not true, that is depart from reality. Our assessments of the failures to get what we had acted toward can vary greatly. We may simply be disappointed, but come to understand that something had changed. In these situations, we may make adjustments in the rules and try again. If our questioning points to another actor, we may express anger or frustration temporarily. If the issues continue, we may add a level of distrust along with the anger. At the extreme, actors can simply exit the institutional game. (For more on this important possibility, see the work, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, by Albert Hirschman.)

When broken situations arise in small institutions like families or business organizations, people often turn to outside coaches, consultants, or therapists to return the situation to normal (expected) operations. Such practitioners are good at changing rules overlooked by the players, or modifying the roles, similarly. Coaches can improve individual performance so as to avoid breakdowns. As the size of the institution increases, say to the size of a nation, the opportunities for breakdown grow for many reasons. The roles and rules, in particular, those that define winning, may not be clear. Because the importance of following the rules and abiding by the roles is critical to the smooth functioning of the institution, big institutions like societies and their major component institutions-governments, economies, educational, and so on-are always going to experience breakdowns and subsequent assessments by the actors in those institutions.

The history of humanity is, at its most basic level, is a series of institutional changes; each one representing an unwillingness of the actors to continue to play by the same rules or to accept the same roles. The last of these major shifts, the emergence of modernity and liberal polities, has lasted for centuries with some changes, but largely maintaining the same rules and roles. US society has been held together by the Constitution and its derivative institutions: the tripartite structure of our government, and lower-level ones like the two-party political system. The economy has been a capitalistic market, mostly free from government intervention, designed by the principles of neo-classical economics. Playing by the rules of this complex set of interlinked institution is presumed by the actors (citizens) to create a winning situation as (loosely) defined by the “American Dream,” the promises of the Declaration of Independence, or other normative sources like political party promises, etc.

When the promises remain unsatisfied for some time, the dissatisfied actors will likely exhibit any or all of the responses I listed above for general institutional failures. How they transform their feelings will depend on the opportunities for gaining satisfaction. I believe that this last sentence is the key to understanding the seemingly abrupt turn in the last election cycle.

Early in the life of the US polity, one highly visible feature, as observed by de Tocqueville, was the myriad civic associations he saw during his visit. More recently, as depicted in Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, such institutions have largely disappeared with the associated loss of what Putnam called social capital. I would use Searle’s term of “glue” instead. The unsatisfied actors chose the exit strategy. The same strategy can be seen in recent trends in voting participation. Exiting the electoral process seems to me to be a symptom of a larger dissatisfaction with the overall political economy. Many cannot find jobs; when they can, the pay is inadequate to make a real difference.

I used the word, commoditization, in some recent posts to describe what appears to be happening to many people. It is no wonder to me that the false promises to change the system and restore old glories made by Trump and others drew many to give the political system another shot. But those promises are certain to fail because the anger and dissatisfaction are being directed at the wrong institutions, such as the political, the economic, or the moral/ethical.

My argument in presenting this partial snapshot of disaffection and loss of connection is to claim that attempts to restore trust and involvement by addressing socio-economic superstructure, like the party system, are focused on the wrong sources of the problems. It is interesting to me that most of the proposed fixes address the two categories of knowing that and knowing how. Trump rode into the presidency on a wave of alternate facts (knowing that) and promises to change the way things were done (knowing how), but neither the pundits nor the politicians have the right handle on knowing why. Without a good grasp on that form of knowledge, any solutions and their implied promises are destined to fall short.

The critical theory that grew from Marx’s analysis represented his concern that conventional scholarship failed to dig deep enough into institutional foundations to know why they were failing to achieve normative ends. But even he and his followers failed to look much deeper than the political economy to unearth its roots in the basic institutional rules of modernity. He thought the operative institutions rested on a base of the forces and relations of production. My work takes critical theory a layer or two deeper to two institutional, importantly, not brute, facts about the nature of the natural world and the essence of human beings. For anyone coming to this blog for the first time, the two are 1) the mechanistic model of the world and the epistemological fiction that science will give us all the knowledge we need to interact with it, and 2) the self-interested human being model of economics

Unless one is very, very careful about these two “facts,” they are generally taken as brute, objectively true descriptions of the world, but they are not. They were declarations by two very prominent natural philosophers of the time, Rene Descartes and Adam Smith. They do not even have the imprimatur of today’s scientific (institutional) facts. They are little more than what we might label, mere opinion. In their place, we should be treating the world as a complex system, one that requires a completely different epistemology to understand and using distinctly different processes to “govern.” Humans are caring, not inherently selfish, beings.

I have expanded on this thesis in all my work and in many previous entries on this blog. I feel it is necessary to keep repeating because I see so many academics and practitioners of many stripes focused on the superstructure. It is always important to fix leaks in the dike, but, if the dike is to become overtopped, it is also essential to think and act at a more fundamental level. I have been searching for a word to describe the level of thought and action consonant with the nature of the problems facing us. “Enlightened” comes to mind, but its history suggests that the light hasn’t yet shone on the understanding (knowing that) necessary to attain the inherent and socially-created potential of human beings and tend to the needs of the surrounding and nurturing world.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 8, 2017 3:02 PM ::

Beware of "Trust" as a Sign of Performance


Our class at HILR this week revolved around looking at a lot of data expressing trust in government as a potential explanation for the recent election results and some longer-range trends reflecting societal satisfaction. The survey documents were not available so I have to guess what kind of questions these data were based on. The labels on many of the figures suggest that the primary label was “government,” whether at the federal, state, or local level. For me, this means both the data and the discussion are suspect.

The first problem comes in the use of trust as the operative concept. Trust is always some sort of assessment about the truthfulness of an actor, whether an individual or an institution. Most simply, it is the answer to the question, “Can I count on you to keep your promises?” Promises, here, refers to the truthfulness of delivered facts or to manifest actions in the world. An assertion of facts is a form of speech act and carries the same validity conditions as an act involving material satisfaction.

Assessments of trust are based on three kinds of evidence. One is direct observations of the outcomes of promises made to the individual, another comprises indirect evaluations based on the reputation of a generalized or stereotypical institutional actor, and a third is simply intuitive or ungrounded. The consequences of assessments of trust determine the future nature of coordination of actions between a questioning, speculative actor and some individualized person or impersonal institutional actor.

If we come to trust someone or some institution over time, we are more likely to accept their promises without questioning and engage in consensual actions without needing some form of coercion or new form of incentive. This end is essential to avoiding conflict and domination. This form of trust is central to the notion of communicative action, espoused by the German social theorist, Jurgen Habermas, and forms the basis of his defense of modernity and the primary role of reason in holding societies together.

Most of us do not need such a high-powered theorist to lead us to the same conclusion. We all have people in our lives that we trust deeply and without question. Why some and not others? Some thought would lead to a history of past promises that have been kept and assertions that have turned out to be true. We come to see such trusted people as “named” individuals whose trust lies entirely in our specific history.

Most of our life, however, is spent in coordinated actions with actors, although also people with names, who represent an institution, say, a school, business, governmental agency, religious institution, medical establishment, and on and on. If you are so inclined, stop for some time and make a list of the institutions and their representative actors you engage with routinely. It will become a very long list. Some representative human actor will always be involved because only people can actually make promises, although over time institutions may become reified and appear to act as a person. Such is the situation with corporations in the US today; they are treated as if they have a voice and so can, in theory, make promises. Cheating is a broken promise referring back to an implicit or explicit promise to play by the rules.

In any rigorous study of trust it is essential to accurately connect the “promise” with the institution. If the target is the government, for example, the assessment needs to refer to something some government entity has promised. In the case of facts (assertions), the connection is easy to make, but, if it is with some actual result, the direct connection is usually tenuous. And further since complex institutions, like governments, have many functions, it is important to be specific. In the absence of specificity, respondents will tend follow the second or third process listed above, making the assessment based on some stereotypical description floating around in the background or on intuition.

Again simplifying, I suspect that the data in the article about trust in government results from a generalized dissatisfaction arising from the difference in one’s actual social conditions compared to some expected standard, say, as represented in the metaphorical American Dream or as promised by some political leader or party. Any direct connection to a single institution is bound to be misleading and, if used as the basis for some remedial actions, likely to end in disappointment.

The reason is simple. An individual’s societal condition is the result of the workings of a very complex system of which government is but one part. Marx and Engels (and others) popularized the term, political economy, to refer to the whole system that provides the resources necessary to achieve economic and social satisfaction. Questions about trust directed at any component part of the system are likely, in the absence of specificity, to dump assessments of generalized dissatisfaction on it. Scholars and planners are, then, likely to try and fix whatever institution was named. Such fixes are notoriously poor at getting rid of the problems and, worse, defocus attention from the real cause that are systemic or lie in deeper structures on which the institutions are based.

In some cases of larger and more persistent problems, for example, income inequality or climate change, large parts of the political economy may be perversely connected. Economic growth is the dominant policy among industrial nations as the solution to most problems. To get this, governments tend to adopt free market policies on the theories that growth is easier to produce in less regulated and taxed circumstances. Most economists and the politicians they advise generally accept this model, by itself, as valid. So far so good, but other theories suggest that unregulated free markets, without some form of income redistribution, are the cause of income inequality. The economics, one institution, and the government, another one, are irrevocably and perversely coupled. Asking people whether they trust government or the market as best place to solve big problems can only lead to the wrong place.

I will stop at this place and summarize. The point I have been trying to make is that asking the public questions about who or what you trust or not is a poor way to identify the social institutions that are responsible for dissatisfaction. Lying is an exception because lies are broken promises about telling the truth and are always made by someone. The effect of lying spills over to the institution to which the liar belongs. When the President lies, the presidency takes a hit. When a Congressman lies, the Congress takes a hit. The level of trust of the Congress is extremely low right now. Much of that rating lies in the failures of the Congress to play its expected (promised) institutional role in governance.

Some of these breakdowns can, in theory, be repaired or mitigated, but that will not change, I believe, the general level of trust in “government.” The basic malfunction lies at the level of the beliefs on which the modernity rests, or in the modern “paradigm” as some would term it. We need new institutions. Some may have features in common with those that are familiar today, but with different structures and objectives.

The first step would be to replace economistic and psychological norms, say wealth and happiness, with the existential vision of flourishing. It would take some time to come to a societal consensus of what flourishing entails since it is qualitative, unlike our metrical modern ends, but that should not stand in the way of getting started.

Part of that process should be a critical examination of the nature of work and the institutions that constitute and contain it. I recently noted, in this blog, the observation of Ugo Mattei that modernity is increasingly turning humans and the rest of the world into commodities, a distinction at odds with our deep-seated ideas about the uniqueness of humans. Capitalism, itself, needs to be examined in terms of its ability to produce flourishing. What might happen if we separate the economy as a means of production of goods and services from the processes that produce the satisfaction of human beings? Such an analysis demands that we rethink the deeply entrenched models of human nature that have been with us since Adam Smith and even earlier.

The arguments I make above call for a more careful analysis of our institutions, especially avoiding the modern tendency to focus on the parts of complex systems instead on the whole. Acting responsibly to govern big systems like those that define any national polity demands a lot of talk and questions. Behaving as if there was a simple (generalized, ideological) solution is folly, at best, and borders on the immoral or criminal, at worse.

This last part of the post is the basis of all my recent work and my books. We are looking for the lost car keys in the wrong place. If we do not stop and look deeper, we are risking making our socio-economic-environmental system ever more rigid and subject to unforeseen large changes. While making for interesting reading, the discipline-bound work of scholars can be distracting. One such article got me started on today’s rant. Trust is an accurate indicator of expected performance only when the performer is very clearly defined.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 31, 2017 5:32 PM ::

Piercing the Smithian Veil of Invisibility


One of the most familiar ideas bandied about in both academic and popular conversations is Smith’s “invisible hand.” This concept is almost solely responsible for the rise of libertarianism, in particular, and free market economics, in general. It simply removes all responsibility for one’s acts by arguing that some magical force guides uncoordinated acts toward providing some common good. No one need to bother worrying about anyone else: just act as if you were the only person in the world and you will be contributing to the benefit of everyone else.

One consequence of thinking and acting in this way is a worldview of isolated, autonomous individuals, in the last analysis devoid of any surrounding ethical framework. Another is the absence of any legitimating institution to provide such an ethical structure to fill in the gaps should the market fail to act as it should in theory. Even doctrinaire economists (well, almost all of them) understand that markets are never perfect in the Smithian sense so that the invisible hand cannot do its job alone and needs a visible foot to produce the common benefits, including the prevention of harms. This point is being largely missed in the political economical conversations going on today in many of the more developed nations, certainly in the US.

I need this short pointer back to Smith to get to what I want to write about. Smith’s model of homo economicus has become one of the principal embedded story lines that drive most modern, developed economies. Even China is strongly influenced by it. The invisible hand is a powerful metaphor, but I believe that a different one is the actual power behind social life. Stories are what power societies and their smaller nested institutions forward. Stories represent the myriad of beliefs we carry in our cognitive systems, Whatever actual configurations and functions of neurons do the job of transforming human intentions into worldly acts can be discussed as stories we would tell if asked why we did what we just did.

Before I move on, I note that stories as prime movers of human action belong to the disciplines of anthropology and sociology (and literature) rather than to economics. Homo economicus has the equivalent of a fully programmed computer in the brain; Homo caritas (the name I will give to human beings instead) have a storybook instead of a computer embedded in the brain. That storybook is unique for every individual and is written by capturing the meanings of every moment of conscious life. Language provides the medium by which the story is written, which starts off slowly, reflecting the early pace of language acquisition. In the two disciplines I mentioned just above, stories are accepted as a useful metaphor underlying human interaction.

One’s story is composed of all the brute and institutional facts about the world that are transformed into beliefs, all the values that enable choices among possibilities of action to be made, opinions about who to trust, and whatever else is required to make sense of the immediate gemisch of raw sensory data and plot a plan of action to convert the present moment to a future scene. Smith’s model of a self-interested human who can act in social situations without regard to others’ needs is a part of the modern human story that, unfortunately, I believe, plays a much larger part than it should have if the collection of life on Earth is to flourish.

Everyone, including economists, does know that actions may be motivated by other that self interest. Even Smith believed, at least for a time, that care about and for others was a primary motivating force for action. Families are held together by care for one another. Economists sometimes ignore that, ascribing even caring behavior as the most net beneficial choice to the actor among other possibilities. Altruism is the name economists give to such exceptional behavior. I prefer to call such actions, care, reflecting the possibility that this name captures the fundamental cognitive processes behind such acts as having clear benefits for the target of actions as the story line, rather than accruing primarily back to the actor.

I do not understand exactly how the brain chooses to follow one story line rather than another, given that every situation has a large number of associated possible responses. Antonio Damasio uses the metaphor of “biological value” to represent the method by which the brain highlights the relatively more successful or effective stories with some sort of marker or map in the brain. Maybe it is strongly correlated with repetition. That would explain how advertising has maintained the Smithian self-interested story during the modern era. Seduction is just another name for turning on the processes that record high “value” for some action, like buying something. Computer app developers have figured out how to do the same thing. This process explains why some people now access their social apps hundreds of times every day. Drugs do this job directly.

Sherry Turkle, in her recent book, tells of families sitting around in the same place (I am deliberated avoiding using the word, together) with everyone gazing at the screen of their mobile device. One of her stories is about a young person who confessed to wishing for meaningful conversations with her family. Conversations are critical to human beings. They comprise the frameworks for developing meaning. The stories in our brains are conversations we have with our selves. The ones with others are what Turkle notes as essential to our species, “Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”

Caring can be seen as the result of a conversation with or about another entity (including non-humans) that asks what would push the other closer to flourishing, that is, to one’s full potential. Such conversations can occur out in the world or in one’s brain. In the latter case we ascribe the result as empathy, a sense of the other’s immediate needs. Conversations about care remove the Smithian veil of invisibility and reveal the world and our interconnections with it.

They also reveal human beings as ethical actors with responsibility for our actions. Once again, economists would simply argue that acting toward the other has a higher benefit than any other immediate possibility. They would argue further that one’s preferences are sui generis or endogenous or self created, and, as a consequence, no one or no institutional set of rules should interfere and impose some commonly held set of (ethical) standards.

Here is where I depart about as fast as I can. I, along with Turkle and many others, strongly believe that humans are sense makers and storytellers, in particular, a tale in which we understand that we are a part of a highly interconnected world rather than isolated, autonomous nodes. The story that makes sense in explaining the magic of our unique species is fundamentally one of connections. The times when we can make sense as autonomous entities are, conversely, few. Turkle blames technology as playing a role in blinding us to our true selves.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation—where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another—that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

The stories we tell to ourselves are not only important in shaping our individual lives. They become the foundations of structures of the institutions that guide social activities. Economic-model-based stories eventually reduce all objects, human and otherwise, to commodities—meaningless objects, interchangeable merely in terms of their relative economic value, and serving purely as a means to some otherwise chosen end. Kant strongly demurred about this when it came to humans, writing:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

As an end, a human being is a unique living organism, whose biological and cultural needs toward flourishing, that is, toward their full potential, are the result of their genes (biology) and their own stories that provide them with meaning (cultural). The first part could, in theory, be addressed wholly through objective knowledge of someone’s unique genome. We seem to making very tiny steps towards that ethically fraught place. But we can interact with the cultural, meaningful parts only if we act out of care and empathy, not through some commoditized basis. Care is the descriptor of our intentional arrow—where do we want the result of our act to show up. Empathy describes the conversation we must have if we are to understand what actions will be effective over there. The conversation can be real and bilateral or imaginary and unilateral in our brains, but, in this latter case, based on context that informs of what to do in situations like this where we lack explicit knowledge.

This last paragraph contains all the basics anyone needs to rebuild our modern world around care and flourishing. I recently read the bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance. It’s a story about how one person was able to escape from a social setting that has entrapped so many others. Vance, like others telling similar stories, argues that his success was largely due to the presence of a caring person in his otherwise pretty miserable upbringing. Economics had virtually no role other than pointing to the poor straits of his early life.

I will finish today’s post with a challenge, the same one present in all my work: How can we reconstruct our institutions around the story of care? How can we reverse the process that has converted humans from early caring, although economically poor Home sapiens, to commodities? Turkle offers a step along the way for every family; reintroduce the art of conversation the medium by which we can come to understand others and ourselves. This process can also be applied to small groups in almost all institutional settings. Temper the rough edges of larger institutions that have been shaped by a focus on efficiency, itself a story that commoditizes.

One of the headlines in today’s news crowed about President Trump appointing his son-in-law to head a Commission to make Government run more like business. Horrors! The market can take care of business, if carefully reined in, but the Government is needed to apply those reins and to support the attainment of ends not available in the market: flourishing, joy, health, positive freedom, safety, natural beauty, transcendence, and so on. This news is simply more evidence of, as I wrote some days earlier, the frightful cruelty of this new Administration. The only real glue that makes us a worthy nation is embedded in our stories. Care can create such glue; neither power, false promises, nor rising GDP can.

(Image for the younger: Dorothy revealing the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 27, 2017 3:40 PM ::