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What Brexit Means to Me (and You)


The news following the referendum in the UK was largely about financial uncertainty and other economic consequences. A few stories warned of risks for immigrants now living in the UK without any kind of local documentation. All of a sudden they have been thrown into the same situation as undocumented immigrants in the US. The nationalistic walls that have been so artfully lowered by the Europeanization process have started to rise with all the ominous memories of the history of separate, competitive, warring entities.

One thing I have learned from my thinking about the world over the past few decades is that it, including humans, is highly interconnected. It was always interconnected through the workings of its global natural processes. As human activities have now grown to the point they exert a significant impact not only on themselves, but also on the natural processes, interconnectedness is an essential part of the system in which all life exists. To ignore that fact while managing the present and planning for the future is like trying to drive a car in traffic wearing earplugs and a blindfold.

The European Union was conceived by men who understood, at least in part, the importance of creating a form of governance that recognized the interconnectedness of nations. It is, by far, the most successful and effective effort toward this end. Its very core structure requires that its members give up some part of their historical sovereignty and replace it with a form of interconnectedness. Regulations made by the governing body are to be harmonized with national rules and policies. Interesting choice of words, harmonize. It has a sense of holism and integrity. The United Nations doesn’t come close, If anything, it tends to exacerbate the nationalism among its members. It has, at least, provided a forum for discussing the individualistic concerns of its members, but lacks any sense of the interconnected whole.

I find a deep sense of irony in the vote to leave the EU. The arguments to leave were largely to insure a future where British sovereignty would be dominant against a backdrop of connectedness to the rest of Europe. Trying to go it alone in any interconnected system tends to make both the outrider and the system less stable and more subject to unpredictable events. On my reading of the news of the vote, I have a strong feeling that this kind of understanding was missing.

Many pundits predict that this event will encourage other nations to go it alone. The current election campaign in the US mimics, in large part, the arguments for and against Brexit. Trump and the Republicans tend to argue for policies based on US exceptionalism, a position that argues that this country is distinct from all the rest and is not subject to the systemic forces that actually shape history. Clinton and the Democrats argue that we are part of the world’s interconnected system and cannot unilaterally have it our way.

These two sets of claims are essentially the same as the two I see as competing for our future as flourishing or not. The positivist, certain way of seeing the world as something we know all about has run its course because interconnectedness is now the better reality than the reductionist mechanistic models that got us so far away from the murk of the Middle Ages. In a sense, we are the victims of our successes. Using the models of modernity we have designed and built an increasingly interconnected global system with all its wonders of innovation and economic power, but, simultaneously, that system has become rigid and more subject to unplanned departures from the trajectory it had been on for centuries.

We cannot opt out of life on Planet Earth, in spite of those who argue we should start planning to inhabit other celestial bodies. The only way to prolong our stay here is to start to give up our modern model of the world and start to think of it as a highly interconnected complex system. National boundaries are an unnatural part of that system. Natural processes ignore them completely. Human activities now flow routinely across these boundaries. Humans are just another predator species, amidst the rest of life forms. We know that other species cannot flourish when their natural habitats deteriorate or disappear. It is hubris to think we are different and are in control. It is also simply unwise.

We do not have to continue to think the same old way. Other species are often doomed when their worlds begin to change in critical ways. Their inventiveness is severely limited relative to the human species. Without language, they cannot do much more than their genes allow. They do not have concepts and beliefs without which there cannot be intentionality: the human capacity to act in meaningful ways.

When we discover that what we have been doing is turning out badly, humans have two basic options to cope. One is to hold onto our basic beliefs about how the world works and try to patch up the parts that appear to be causing us grief. The primary means for this is to apply some form of technology or technocratic management to isolate the problematic pieces or, otherwise, to fix a part of the machine that we see is sputtering. Brexit is unfortunately a prime example of the first of these approaches.

The second possibility is to give up those deeply embedded beliefs on which our actions are based. To many this will always appear as the more risky because, until the subsequent actions become stable, we cannot predict how the remedies will work. Highly interconnected systems are always complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.

These two alternates are similar to the basic tenets of the two poles of political philosophy in democracies: liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism is a belief that what has worked in the past is better than anything new. This way of thinking ignores the reality of an ever-changing world. Unlike a machine which tends to maintain itself as it grow larger, the complex world is subject to all sorts of systemic changes that produce deviations in behavior from the previous norms. Without commenting on the specific claim of the conservative right, the foundation on which it is built cannot support the superstructure of today’s highly interconnected complex world.

Liberalism, conversely, is more pragmatic at its core. It understands that truths do change as the world changes. The heart of the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill was freedom of expression as a necessary context for the discovery of truths in a changing world. At its roots, liberalism is a form of social learning. Unfortunately, liberalism has lost much of its pragmatic character, but still admits of a need to keep adapting as circumstances change as they inevitably do. John Dewey, the great American philosophy, saw clearly the importance of a liberal, pragmatic framework in any kind of effective democracy.

I have always seen myself in the liberal camp politically, but without much reflection as to why. Now, as I have begun to acknowledge the complexity of the world as its basic nature, my choice has become clear. To dream of flourishing is to accept complexity. One cannot have the former without the latter and its wonderful property of emergence: the ability to create something out of nothing. I believe that such thinking is impossible among conservatives, given the very underpinnings of their political philosophy. They cannot deal with complexity. While it is possible to accept complexity and think pragmatically as a liberal, I do wish that more of its leaders would express this, and more sharply delineate the critical differences with conservatism that have been buried in public conversations here in the US and also in the debates that preceded the Brexit vote.

At moments like this, the words of a very plaintive tune often rush into my consciousness. It is Where Have All the Flowers Gone, by Pete Seeger. One verse will do.

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 25, 2016 4:35 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 June 25, 2016 8:56 AM ::

Emergence or How To Be Something Without Having an Essence


This blog post is inspired, in part, by a comment directed at my opening plenary at a recent event. The commenter challenged my claim that I escape the essentialism of human nature in my claims about care as the existential ground of human behavior. My answer is largely that the nature or essence of something is located inside or possessed by the object. Care is related to emergence. Emergent properties differ by existing only outside the body as the name suggests. They are there only by virtue of the word of some observer of the object.

Modern society, since the early Enlightenment, has been shaped by an essentialist definition of human nature, describing it as some feature or set of features that make us what we are. This seems quite reasonable since we define most anything else by the way it works. A table is a table because it serves as a platform on which we can set things. Martin Heidegger disagrees:

All metaphysics including its opponent, positivism, speaks the language of Plato. The basic word of its thinking, that is, of his presentation of the Being of beings, is eidos, idea: the outward appearance in which beings as such show themselves. Outward appearance, however, is a manner of presence. No outward appearance without light — Plato already knew this. But there is no light and no brightness without the opening. Even darkness needs it. How else could we happen into darkness and wander through it? (from On Time and Being)

I am more interested in creating flourishing than in the meaning of human nature, but I can’t get there without first taking a detour into the world of philosophy. Why? Because the absence of flourishing is, in part, the result of holding a faulty conception of what human beings are (an ontological question). Alternatively, because the state of the world depends on what we do, not what we are, we should ask the ethical question, “What does it mean to be a human being?”, or the closely related question, “What are human beings for?”1

The latter question sounds strange. Humans are a natural object, like rocks or giraffes or raindrops. We would not ask what giraffes are for unless we believed in some designing creator, who might have had some purpose in mind. Without such a transcendent designer/creator, natural objects, that is, those that appeared along the evolutionary lifetime of the cosmos due only to natural processes are purposeless. They simply exist as something distinct in the cosmos. Their distinction arises out of their differences in material extent and structure, as expressed by their properties. We would never ask what is the purpose or meaning of a rock, unless we were writing a poem or otherwise attaching some human-derived property, like hammering, to it. Natural objects can serve as metaphors, taking some of their properties and ascribing them to something else.

If we know what a giraffe is, but not what it is for or what does it mean to be a giraffe, does the same restriction apply to human beings? Our existence as a distinct species, like giraffes, is a result of the evolutionary process, but very late in that process. If we accept the answer for the giraffe, then it must be true for human beings as well. We exist as a distinct species only by the randomness of a set of meaningless natural processes. Giraffes and other forms of life differ from other inanimate natural objects in one critical extent, they exist with a purpose, to exist in the world in such a manner to reproduce themselves as individual organismic entities and as species.

How can this be if we accept the purposelessness of the natural world? The answer comes in the idea of emergence. Emergence is the process by which order appears, spontaneously, in otherwise chaotic systems, that is, systems that do not exhibit spatial or temporal regularities. The cosmos itself is best explained by the Big Bang theory as emergent, the result of some not ordered process that, as if by magic, created order. We see emergent processes all the time. Every time we make ice, we have created order, solidity, in what was another ordered form, liquid water, which results when a chaotic form, water vapor, condenses as the temperature is lowered.

Life, itself, is such an emergent phenomenon. From a mixture of chemicals in a medium, life came forth, or emerged, in the form of primordial organisms. The chemicals had been interacting before, but without the emergence of order. As time passed, the chemicals interacted in such a way that a structure was formed with the capability to reproduce itself. Maturana and Varela call this process, autopoiesis. Living organisms are the only natural entities that possess this characteristic. It is possible to conceive of mechanical systems that can be designed to reproduce themselves, but it would incorrect to label them as living. Living organisms, not only act autopoietically to maintain their organization during their lifetime, but also maintain the species by some form of reproduction.

If one were to observe the behavior of any living species, it would appear to have a purpose, that is, it would consist of actions to maintain itself, to remain viable. Maturana and Varela make an important point, noting that autopoiesis always maintains the organism’s organization while its structure changes to reflect interactions with its external world The emergent purposefulness of life is the primary ontological feature of life. It is sufficient to describe all life forms, including human beings, as living organisms. Another way to say this is that the primary feature of all life forms is viability, but that is all we can say about them, even about human beings. Early natural philosophers missed this important point and attributed other natures to humans (and other material objects). So far so good, but how does this step get us to accepting “care” as the basis for human existence?

Heidegger went further observing that human viability reflects the world in which one was embedded or, as he wrote, into which one was thrown. Biological structural coupling is accompanied by a cultural coupling as well, expressed through meaningful actions. Humans care for the world by acting in ways reflecting their understanding of the meaning of the situations they found themselves in. He defined care in terms of a wide range of actions, writing that caring is “having to do with something, producing, attending to something and looking after it, giving up something and letting it go, undertaking, accomplishing, evincing, interrogating, considering, discussing, determining, and so forth.” Meaning is not to be found as an essence, but in the way we interact with objects or, in, Heidegger’s way, care for or with them. The critical part of this argument is that human Being is a complex phenomenon, which process permits emergence.

As a postscript, this kind of connection between meaning and action is central to early pragmatism. What we know in the form of beliefs is the result of our interactions with the world, as in this extract from the works of C. S. Pierce, the founder of this philosophical strain.

Every piece of knowing depends, not simply causally, but logically, on what one has previously learnt, since all knowledge rests on the assumption that certain methods of classification and systemization, which have been learnt in connection with other earlier situations, can be applied, in a particular way, to a particular situation. Once admitted, the grave error of Descartes and of all later Cartesians becomes plain: it is the assumption that we cannot learn until we know…Rather, we must always build on what we already know. It is impossible in principle to pinpoint the moment when the learning process begins, but so what.

One simply cannot get to understand what humans are for without the frame of complexity and its associated phenomenon, emergence. And once having got there, it is impossible to go further without the kind of understanding that pragmatic inquiry produces. The problems that the questioner at the conference and virtually all other attendees have with accepting this model of human Being is their uncritical use of positivism, as in the first quote.

You can find my talk I mention above by following this link.

  1. This discussion has been strongly influenced by Loyal Rue’s book Nature is Enough, and by the book, The Tree of Knowledge, by Maturana and Varela

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 18, 2016 6:34 PM ::

Lost for Words

lost for words

I begin tonight a little depressed, which is rare for me. The courses I have been taking at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR) are over and I miss them. One was an examination of the history of liberalism, starting with John Stuart Mill and finishing with the views of contemporary political theorists, like Isaiah Berlin or John Rawls. At the end, we had a wide-ranging discussion of the place of these ideas in current American political conversations. Compared to the extraordinary careful attempts at defining the concept, words like liberal, liberty, and freedom are being thrown around without a whit of concern for their meaning. This course pointed out the critical importance of being clear about these particular words because, at least for liberal, they have had almost polar opposite meanings at various points in history and in different national settings.

Given the rather unusual nature of this political season so far, the role of language is an important factor. I will come back to this, but, first, mention the second course I took. It was on the work and life of Primo Levi, an Italian Holocaust survivor and remarkable writer about his time in the camps. It was not too hard on me while I was reading his remarkable telling of his experience, but now all I have left are the pictures he created in words. The original title of his first book (written soon after his return to Turin), Survival in Auschwitz, is If This Is a Man, when translated from Italian. It is a much more apt title, as Levi is asking throughout if either the German captors or the brutally treated prisoners have any shreds of humanity left. One of the chapters is titled, “This Side of Good and Evil.” The title suggests that what transpired in the camps has no words to describe it.

I am going to quote a bit from this book and another one we read, The Drowned and the Saved, written many years after his release. They help me explain my mood.

What we have so far said and will say concerns the ambiguous life of the Lager (Camp). In our days many men have lived in this cruel manner, crushed against the bottom, but each for a relatively short period; so that we can perhaps ask ourselves if is it necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional state.

To this question we feel that we have to reply in the affirmative. We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing. We would also like to consider that the lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment. (my emphasis.)

The impact of this quote is magnified many times by the concluding words of the second book in which he is describing those who were his ‘torturers.’ (sic) He finds that word inappropriate.

…it brings to mind twisted individuals, ill-born,…Instead they were made of our same cloth, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save for exceptions, they were not monsters.…Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans, who accepted in the beginning, out of mental laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity, and national pride, the ‘beautiful words’ of Corporal Hitler, followed him as long as luck and the lack of scruples favoured him, were swept away by his ruin, afflicted by deaths, misery and remorse, and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.

Somewhere-I could not find the place-Levi suggests something like the Holocaust could happen again. I do not, in any way, suggest that such a horrendous event is on the horizon here in the US. But we are seeing terrible dehumanizing of multitudes of human beings in many other places. What come through, and depresses me, is the power of demagoguery, which has not changed since 1933. Note the words, “mental laziness” or “national pride.” Also, “lack of scruples.”

The ultimate lesson I got from all the readings about liberty is that in any pluralistic society, tolerance is essential if a drift toward authoritarianism and demagoguery is to be halted. Most of the writers we read stressed the need for an educated citizenry. Their sense of education was full of civic values and critical thinking, but where is this today? I cannot find much of it as captured in the news. I live in an intellectual bubble, that hardly resembles what I gather is the real world out there in the US, so I have to rely on what shows up in the various media I read and listen to. I see the highly touted social media as dangerously implicated in creating a sort of national “stupidity.” How much intelligence can be transmitted and appreciated via Twitter. That it has become a major factor in our political conversation is distressing, at best.

The conversion of “news” to entertainment creates mental laziness at best. That Facebook is the source of hot topics manufactured by a stupefying algorithm based on comments and likes. I found the recent flap about political “ bias” at Facebook pathetic. To elevate a completely artificial source to something worthy of serious criticism is ludicrous, but also chilling relative to history. The dangers of groupthink have been known for a very long long. The existence of large numbers of believers does not make their beliefs either true or right. That seems to me is what Levi is telling us.

Here’s part of the reason I am depressed. The irony of Trump’s comment about shooting somebody on 7th Avenue is “huge.” Here is what he said, “I could stand in the middle of 7th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. Like Incredible.” I wrote this down, watching him utter the words on You Tube. I end with this, as an example of the slippery slope we seem to be on without even realizing. That’s what is depressing me. Note the lack of humanity here and other other echoes of what Levi reminds us. When we, or any citizenry, stops thinking about who and how we are to be governed, we are possibly embarking on an unplanned and unwelcome social experiment.

I am off tomorrow to visit my daughter and family. That’s a sure bet to restore my equilibrium.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 19, 2016 10:05 PM ::

Rooting Flourishing in Reality (Cont'd)


I had lunch today with an old friend who has been mucking around in the trenches of constructivism as long as I have. It is rare that I can have an unencumbered conversation about the two distinct worlds that come forth when we distinguish the material, objective world of mechanistic objects from the subjective world of meaningful objects. They co-exist, but we humans make a moment-by-moment choice of which one we want to guide our life. If you do not understand this difference, go back to the blog of April 29th and dwell on the two quotes from Maturana and Rorty, about the middle of the post.

I do not know how the brain distinguishes between these two distinct worlds, but the conscious individual does. Consciousness is more than a general awareness that we are immersed in a world that provides phenomenal inputs to our sensory organs. Consciousness is always an awareness of something out there in the material world. Our brain operates on these inputs, converting or, at least, attempting to convert them to some distinctive meaningful thought. The exact biological mechanism by which this translation process takes place is as yet poorly known, but the philosophy of Martin Heidegger can provide insight into this dichotomy.

Heidegger argues that humans differ from other animals because we are conscious of the world around us and have the linguistic capability to give meaning to it. The meaning of worldly objects arises by interactions with them. As we acquire such meanings, the objects become ready-to-hand, Heidegger’s phrase for objects in the material world that have acquired contextual meaning. He also called these objects: equipment. We understand what a hammer is once we have used it to hammer. Our brains have some sort of memory of the object, associated with the context in which it has become meaningful. If we should encounter the same object out of the context of being used as it has been, it might carry the same label, but would have some other meaning that depended on that particular context, say, as the centerpiece of a modern abstract artistic construction.

We also acquire decontextualized knowledge about objects through didactic and auto-didactic education. Objects that we can identify in terms of generalized or abstract descriptions have an existence distinct from those we understand through use. Heidegger calls such objects: present-at-hand. Both exist as material objects in the world out there, but in two different modes for us. The meaningful ready-at-hand object carries with it a particular kind of truth that is absent from its abstract present-at-hand twin. That truth is a sense of alignment with the real world, the world out there, but not the world of abstractions handed to us by scientific inquiry. The hammer works, that is, it accomplishes the task I wanted or intended to do. When something ready-to-hand is not available to me, (I lost my hammer last week.) the transparency (momentary disappearance of consciousness) of hammering is lost, but I can continue by allowing the immediate world become present and create a hammer by applying my abstract knowledge to objects that become present-at-hand. Knowing that I need a massive, hard object to bang in a nail, I could pick up a rock and keep the action going.

Truth in the meaningful world of ready-to-hand is a different kind of truth from that in the world of present-at-hand. The first kind represents some understanding of the exact way the world works as an organic, contextual reality. I have learned the truth about hammering after I have used a hammer. I cannot explain what that truth is in abstract terms without losing something that was part of the explicit context of my experience. For example, if I picked up a massive piece of glass and tried to hammer with it, I might end up with a pile of shards. The fact that glass is brittle was absent from my prior experience. Heidegger called such truths, inherent in ready-to-hand objects, aletheia (a Greek word for not-being-hidden), or unconcealment. I will also use a more familiar word, pragmatic, to refer to such truths that have become evident while acting in a coherent way in a real world context.

So with this example, let’s shift to the much larger world of everyday reality. All living organisms act biologically to maintain viability. I have used Maturana’s term, autopoiesis, to describe this process in other places. Antonio Damasio describes the human brain as generating a core self (a metaphor) for the processes that maintain homeostasis: bodily conditions within a range that permits the body to remain alive. This self operates without meaning.

For those interested in neuroscience, Damasio posits a second metaphorical self, the proto-self. This self is represented by the reactionary emotions that we have acquired through evolution and is seated in the oldest part (reptilian) of the brain. Emotions like thirst, hunger, or fright are a kind of ready-to-hand understanding of what to do with one’s body in certain contexts. In the emotional context, the body is equivalent to other ready-to-hand objects, like the hammer example. Emotions reveal truths about the world that have become embodied through evolution. The basic emotions are responses to worldly situations that have been effective in maintaining the body, that is, surviving.

Emotional actions lack the meaningfulness of conscious, intentional actions, that is, actions I can reasons about if asked. Such actions are associated with a third kind of self that, according to Damasio, operates in a meaningful manner. He called this one, the autobiographical self; it arises from the stored memories of worldly experience, mediated through language. This self is the biological equivalent of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world.

The protoself and the core self operate without language. Their functioning can be said to be truthful in the sense that they maintain coherence with the world. The truth Heidegger writes about is more about coherence than correctness in any formal sense. [Pragmatic] truth relates to the ability of the human being to maintain coherence with the objective world. Truth has such a pragmatic sense in its relation to successful coping with the world. Further, this kind of truth arises dialectically from actions taken in some meaningful context. The brain senses when whatever was done in response to phenomenal inputs worked and keeps a “record” of that for future reference. The record associated with the core- and proto-self has been written by the evolutionary history of the species, and has phylogenic origins. When similar situations are encountered, the “truthful” actions are recalled and, if still successful, are more deeply rooted in the brain.

Each human creates another record, an ontogenic one, corresponding to its own, unique experiential history: the autobiographical self of Damasio. Unlike the other two selves, this one is mediated through language. Language arose through effective human coping with the world. Language enables humans to relate to each other; to coordinate action as befits a social species. The distinctions that are created in language are stored in the brain in some corresponding form that is yet to be clearly elucidated by neuroscience. Language would have arisen first in human efforts to coordinate actions related to natural phenomena, but, as settlements and their cultures developed, would have expanded as new situations demanded new kinds of coping activities.

Until late in human development, language was largely must have expressed pragmatic truths, experiences that worked well enough to be memorialized in words. The formal, abstract way of expressing truths emerged only in recent times. Sticking with Heidegger for a moment, he blamed the Greeks, especially Plato, for the inversion of truth from its pragmatic to its abstract sense. Modernity, in particular, is characterized by a hegemonic domination of abstract over pragmatic truths. In the process, humans have become separated from the real world and the coherence with it that comes from acting pragmatically. The result is that our actions, both individually and collectively, fail to produce the intended results and may also produce unintended consequences.

Why all this philosophizing? It is very important to the concept of flourishing. Flourishing becomes present when humans are living coherently (effectively) in relation to their biology and the cultural world in which they exist. The core-and proto-selves handle the biology; the autobiographical self copes with the culture as long as sufficient ready-to-hand resources (pragmatic truths) are available. The ills of modernity I write about could be said to arise from the lack of such resources. Another way to say this is to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s comment about capitalism, “We know a lot about everything, but understand little about the world.” (He wrote, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”)

The above discussion is not so different from my usual rant about the failure to view the world as complex, with the result that the actions we take fall short of producing what we intend them to do. Complexity, without its technical definition, is equivalent to the contextual real world of the preceding paragraphs. The world that Heidegger referred to in his compound phrase, being-in-the-world, is the same complex world we define as non-linear, chaotic, etc. The philosophy of pragmatism and its formal methodologies are merely attempts to unconceal truths about that world. They are extensions to collective situations of the way individual humans generate truths that enable them to successfully navigate life, and ultimately to flourish.

Let me add a few words about care. Care is what humans do when they act out of pragmatic truths, employing ready-to-hand resources. Action, under these circumstances, coheres with the contextual worldly situation, by using ready-to-hand resources that fit. Care is inherently meaningful. One of the key resources of care is empathy, understanding of the other’s situation as part of the context of action. Another key resource is the ability to reflect. Context is created during interruptions in the flow of action. Some call the process by which this happens, presencing, as opposed to the recession of the conscious world during caring actions as ready-to-hand resources produce transparency. Context becomes consciousness during the intervals between such transparencies, and can be captured at that point.

I recognize that I have thrown a lot of ideas around in this post, but I believe that are all parts of a holistic picture of how humans exist in the real world. There are even more pieces I haven’t included. I hope this begins to establish a link between the emerging understanding of the brain and its processes with our sense of reality and how humans behave with respect to it. And, although I did not say much about the failings of the dominant objective world view, this discussion should make a little clearer my arguments about replacing it with a frame that incorporates the very important missing piece: meaning. This discussion also continues to ground flourishing as much more than just an appealing, nice sounding metaphor.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 5, 2016 1:26 PM ::

Dogma, of Any Variety, Is Still Dogma


The last post was long and dense, but contains my latest thinking. This one is a continuation. I have generally avoided political comments on this blog, but it is hard to let what is happening these days go without comment. Like unsustainability, political chaos is a systems issue. Indeed, almost all life’s serious problems are systems issues. Further, almost all of these problems show up inside of complex systems. Unless one has an already well established familiarity with any system and has begun to understand it, quick fixes generally will not work. Complexity always requires understanding, not ordinary knowledge.

Complexity problems virtually always require some form of inquiry that will strip off the proximal causes and allow access to those below the surface. There are quite a few tools around to help do this. The fishbone diagram and the 5 why’s, familiar to those who know the Toyota Production Systems and its derivative, Lean Manufacturing, are a couple of examples. The point here is that the closer one gets to the rooted causal elements (There is always more than one element), the more likely is the chance of clearing up the problem and moving along. Learning processes that involve revealing the roots and playing with alternates beliefs fit what Argyris and Schön called double-loop learning. Complex systems are the source of the “wicked problems” of Rittel and Webber and the “messes” of Russ Ackoff. I have referred to both in my work.

The big problems that attract interest on the national scale are always wicked. (For a discussion of this type of problems, you can click here to move to the start of a series of my posts on that topic. (May 11, 2011, Others follow in my archives.) The Founding Fathers knew this. Although they were well informed by the theories of governance that had developed in England and elsewhere, they were concerned about how they would work in the still inchoate nation they set out to build. The final document, the Constitution, came forth only after a protracted public colloquy, where arguments for alternatives were debated. Today, as Mark Lilla wrote in the article I commented on in my last post, we have foregone this kind of inquiry because we see our own system as a source of Band-Aids for everyone else’s and our problems. As for debate, I wish the media would stop using this term for the circuses that are advertised as debates. Congress has virtually refused to debate serious issues. What go for debates there are little different from those of the political nominating campaigns.

There is great danger in making believe that the world can be known with enough certainty to stop questioning your beliefs and principles. (See the Mill quotes at the end of this post.) That’s what Lilla is saying when he argues that the beliefs and principles of modernity (he called these an ideology) have become dogma—a set of unquestioned and unquestionable facts. The banality of the current nominating process tends to force the candidates into a shallow mold, but almost all of them do not seem to mind. Worse, most seem to relish the idea that they do not have to say anything of any depth, nuance, or criticality, that is, except when referring to the flaws of everyone else.

I think the only candidate that recognizes the “wickedness” of the world that faces the present and next President is Hillary Clinton. She is criticized for her “wonkish” responses and approach to key issues. I find this one of the few positive aspects I can find in reading, listening, or watching the campaign. I am writing this post from as objective a position I am able to take; my arguments are all based to the degree to which the candidates recognize the complex nature of the problems we face. (I am, however, a loyal Democrat.)

Senator Sanders has been rightfully criticized for taking a dogmatic stance on the important problems he has centered his campaign. The problems at the center of his concerns are, indeed, stark and, in my opinion, worthy of fixing, but not by the dogmatic (again in Lilla’s sense) means he trumpets (sic). Dogma, even at a very loud volume, is still dogma. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” assumes two “facts”: 1) the US was great, then, and 2) whatever made it so can do it again, now. It has never been great without placing a lot of parentheses around the word to indicate all the areas that arguably are not so wonderful to crow about: slavery, inequality, anti-democratic institutions, foreign policy failures (e.g. Viet Nam), hypocrisy, and on and on. We can point to “victories,” like the endings of WW I, WW II, or the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, but not to any simple reason for these historical events.

Lilla does not take up much space examining the causes of this shift away from “thinking” before acting to the current mode of “Fire, Ready, Aim.” A few possibilities come to mind. One is the presence of so much money in politics, coming from a relatively small group of individuals and corporations. Money comes with interests attached, especially the large sums that dominate political “philanthropy.” Politicians do not have to think much, just simply act on behalf of the donors. The failure of bipartisanship in Congress, for whatever reason, makes debate about serious issues impossible. Oppositional politics is a sign of dogma working at its insidious best.

But there is another factor to be considered; the absence of critical thinking in everyone’s education. Our high schools are turning into machines to graduate technicians, even quite sophisticated technicians. The expanding focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has squeezed out the humanities and an understanding how the world of human beings works. The ability to code apps that may create billionaires says nothing about human affairs, other than today, we, in the US, are crazy about anything new. The same diminishing of humanities and liberal arts is, in general, occurring in our colleges and universities. The destination for the best and brightest from Harvard, Yale and other elite schools is Wall Street, where, as quants, they are little more than high-paid technicians.

When politics departs from reality, we are all in trouble. Political thinkers like John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and the German social theorist, Jurgen Habermas, have argued that a strong public sphere in which bona fide debate and questioning occurs is essential to any progressive polity. Habermas’s doctoral thesis argued that such a sphere has largely disappeared. Fixed truths, the definition of dogma, prevent such inquiries and immobilize the system, preventing it from adapting to an always changing world.

The size and shape of the United States makes such critical conversations problematic, but, nonetheless, critically important. The monotonic clash between Communism and whatever the US ideology is papered over the complexity of both systems. The reason we won is said to be the superiority of the free market to any sort of central economic planning. The idea of central economic planning has expanded to become equivalent to any form of government intervention in the lives of the people, even as far as some goods that doctrinaire Chicago School economists would admit that the market cannot supply reliably. Materialism, another dogma, is the consequence of leaving the government out of the social world. It works well enough for those with the resources to enter and stay within the market economy, but not for those who lack these resources.

Admitting that one lacks the right answers for what ails us is not tantamount to surrender to the dogmatists, nor a failure of commitment to seek the common good. It is simply an acknowledgment that modernism, when held as a system of absolutes, cannot be fitted to all situations, especially those that deal directly with complexity. Pragmatism as a formal way of discovering truths arose around the end of the 19th century, but blossomed only in the 20th. John Stuart Mill, who is the source of many of the ideas that form the libertarian dogma of today, would be appalled that his thoughts had become so frozen.

In many ways he was a pragmatist, but without being labeled as such. His liberal views about free expression were grounded on the (pragmatic) belief that truth emerges from free, unconstrained conversations. I end this post with a couple of extracts from his best known essay, On Liberty. The very last sentence, while omitting any reference to a process clearly presumes some sort of conversation or inquiry.

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.

I answer that it is assuming very much more. There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 2, 2016 2:08 PM ::

The End of History Liberalism??


My work for the last 20 years or more has generally had a connection to concerns related to sustainability (better, unsustainability). I am finding my basic ideas have relevance far beyond this topic. The central critique of modernity, fueling my work, arose out of looking for a way to explain both the existence and persistence of growing departures from the vision behind all modern cultures: progress and the perfection of the human being. It all comes down to two related ontological beliefs that are no longer driving the modern engine in the right direction. I hesitate to label these beliefs as flawed because they have produced such wonders for centuries, but they do not fit the present world sufficiently well enough to avoid unintended consequences so large that they threaten to destabilize the Planet.

These two beliefs are:

  1. The objective reality of Descartes and his related methodological reductionism as the way to know that reality. This belief leads to the view of the universe as a vast machine, the parts of which are knowable and analytically describable. And with another nudge, this leads to the idea that with all that knowledge, humans are able to control the machine or, in the words of Francis Bacon, make nature our slave. Said a little differently, we are culturally technological optimists, believing that some marvelous innovation that will save us from impending doom will always be lurking just around the corner.

  2. The self-interested, economistic, rationalistic, autonomous model of human beings. This belief leads to the view of humans as insatiable optimizers, always acting to acquire pleasure-giving goods, limited only by the extent of their resources Here, too, with another nudge, this leads to individualism as a cultural attribute.

The combination of the two forms the modern view that we can find answers to all our problems through the application of reason. Reason, coupled with good science, can explain everything about both the material world and the immaterial word of human affairs. The United States, which was expressly founded on the basis of these beliefs and their derivatives, such as the natural rights to life, liberty and so on, is the best example of these beliefs in action, among modern nations.

In this epistemologically accessible, reason-driven world, there is, in theory, a single truth to every question. An apple always falls down because of gravity. All explanations have this same form. X does Y because Z. Moral questions, similarly, can be answered as A should do Y in cases of Z because X. Even if the situation is very complicated and we are stuck to find answers in these forms, we argue that they must exist, but we haven’t found them yet.

In a perverse turn, this set of beliefs that was thought to free humans from the chains of dogma contains, in itself, an intrinsic dominating potential. Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist who shows up often in this blog, is concerned that the Cartesian dualistic explanation neglects the biology of the observer, without whom science wouldn’t work. He writes:

There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations [the “becauses” in the two canonical forms above] that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or her cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary, mutually exclusive explanatory paths that I shall call the path of objectivity without parentheses (or the path of transcendental ontologies), and the path of (objectivity) in parentheses (or the path of constitutive ontologies)…..In this (transcendental) path, an explanation operationally entails the implicit claim by the explaining observer that he or she has a privileged access to an objective independent reality, and that it is this objective reality that gives validity to his or her explanations. Due to this circumstance, any disagreement between two or more observers always takes the form of a dispute in mutual negation… In this explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” (“Reality: The Search for Objectivity, or the Quest for a Compelling Argument.” Irish Journal Of Psychology 9(1): 25-82.)

The transcendental character of capturing the objective (external) reality in our non-physical mind has puzzled scientists and philosophers ever since Descartes proposed the split between the outside world (res extensa) and its image in our minds (res cogitans). Since Maturana wrote this in 1988, neuroscientific findings indicate the brain works without what was called the mind. Antonio Damasio puts it very clearly in one of his books, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time, speedily or slowly, orderly or jumpily, and on occasion it moves along not just one sequence, but several. Sometimes the sequences are concurrent, sometimes convergent and divergent. Sometimes they are superposed. (note 7 to Chapter 1) (My emphasis)

Maturana’s constitutive ontology corresponds to the social constructionist viewpoint, which admits to a real material universe, but restricts any meaningful interpretation to human expressions. The difference between these two ways to hold reality is critical. Maturana says, in the clearest form I know, that the Cartesian transcendental view leads to domination. The title of his paper suggests that reason, rather than producing truths, is a hidden form of persuasion, designed to dominate or compel. I draw the same conclusion from the work of Richard Rorty, who wrote

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own-unaided by the describing activities of human beings - cannot. (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity p. 4-5)

The second belief in the above list is derivative of the first. If the universe is a vast machine, and humans are a part of it, they, too, can be described in the same way, that is, by a set of inherent properties and operational laws. Specifically, the result was the economic model of human being, and also the idea of natural rights, and objective moral values like goodness and truth. All of this was a great revelation at a time when the Western world was ruled by absolutes: religious dogma and monarchical, feudal hierarchies.

We are or should be aware of a serious problem connected with these beliefs. They have stopped producing wonders and started producing negative effects, and no longer appear to moving progressively forward. I have written this many times before, but usually with some connection to unsustainability. I have been taking a course on the “essence of liberalism,” and now see these beliefs as the core of this idea, and, consequently, as a shaky foundation for this central theme of most Western nations. I have hesitated to delve into the area of political theory because I am only marginally knowledgeable about it. I suppose that could be said on many of the topics I think about. So I might as well plunge into it.

I have leapfrogged this area by jumping directly to thoughts about human ontology and argued that the second belief is incorrect. Humans are not some autonomous machines, programmed to maximize their pleasure by, in our current version, the acquisition of material possessions. They are caring creatures, aware of their interconnections to others and to the rest of the world, as they understand them within their historical, cultural context. If we must find a way to rate the human condition, it should be connected to this “nature.” I have offered flourishing as the proper concept for such an assessment. Some of my recent blogs have elaborated this idea.

Today, I want to focus on the problematic foundations of American exceptionalism. Our course assignment for next week includes an article by Mark Lilla, published in the New Republic, with the title, “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age.” I found it stunning and the best critique of the current political scene in the US (and other places, too) and of our current foreign policy. His main point is that the ideology of liberalism, a living set of ideas and institutions, has morphed into a lifeless dogma.

Yet our libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma. The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide [faith rules]: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus [the world perishes].

As dogma, it fits Maturana’s definition of objective reality without parentheses, that is, without any conditional statement about the possibility of contingency or error. I find Lilla’s finding highly ironic because liberalism rests solidly on the idea of reason. The conversion of reason to dogma is not a surprise; cultures become ossified over time. So do human beings. Our beliefs fade from consciousness. Our norms become merely habits. We act without reflection. For collectives, the power structures become rigid and not subject to much change.

I have my own views about what has to happen to break this downward spiral. Chuck the two beliefs above and replace them: objective reality by some form of social constructionism, and the mechanistic, greedy humans by a caring, empathetic creature. This will go a long way to eliminate domination. Further replace the analytic, deterministic machine model of the universe by a complex system model. Since such a model precludes predictions based on scientific investigations as the means of control, we must shift to pragmatic inquiry and adaptive complex system governance. Pragmatism is, inherently, a form of social construction—a way of coming to consensus about how to understand some problematic part of the universe and what to do about any problems associated with it. Maturana has something relevant about this too, “Reality is an explanatory proposition that arises in a disagreement as an attempt to recover a lost domain of coordination of actions or to generate a new one.” A non-philosopher’s way of describing what pragmatism does.

This means that liberalism, in all of its hydra-like forms, has to go, because its roots will not grow in the soil of present-day modernity. Humans cannot flourish as entirely autonomous individuals. Greed empties the caring center; some might even use the metaphor, soul. Flourishing rests on rooted understanding and meaningfulness, not on detached, abstract analytical knowledge. Care for others cannot co-exist with fully developed negative liberty, the freedom from any encroachments except those that would cause harm to others. Pluralists, who see the impossibilities in such pure forms, argue for some form of toleration as a means to mitigate the absolutism of extreme libertarianism, but tolerance is impossible without some form of care for the other. Maybe even impossible without love for the other. I go again to Maturana and his definition of love, which fits here.

Love is the domain of those relational behaviors through which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstance. Love does not legitimize the other, love lets the other be. Through seeing the other, entails acting with the other in a way that they do not need to justify their existence in the relation.

Let me end this long, serious post with the concluding paragraph of Lilla’s article. It’s worth reading the whole piece. While all is relevant, I have bolded the one sentence that I find most striking. Understanding requires the willingness to forego or, at least, bracket one’s present beliefs and make room for new ones.

The libertarian age is an illegible age. It has given birth to a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. Having witnessed unpleasant scenes of intellectual drunkenness, we have become self-satisfied abstainers removed from history and unprepared for the challenges it is already bringing. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in ideology still remained in the West. But it also seems to have destroyed our will to understand. We have abdicated. The libertarian dogma of our time is turning our polities, economies, and cultures upside down—and blinding us to this by making us even more self-absorbed and incurious than we naturally are. The world we are making with our hands is as remote from our minds as the farthest black hole. Once we had a nostalgia for the future. Today we have an amnesia for the present.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 29, 2016 1:05 PM ::

Thoughtful Review of Flourishing

I had posted this on my Facebook page, but discovered the link went to the Journal with limited access, not to the article itself. The review was done by a colleague and friend, Nigel Roome, who recently passed away, much too soon. Here it is. REVIEWJournalofIndustrialEcology.pdf

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 25, 2016 1:47 PM ::

Is Freedom the Right Thing to Strive For?

“You are ready to aid in the shaping and application of those wise restraints that make men free.” John MacArthur Maguire (Harvard Law School Professor)


The assignment for next week in my class on the “Essence of Liberalism” at HILR is Isaiah Berlin’s quite famous two liberties lecture. Berlin compares and contrasts two opposing types of liberty: positive and negative. The latter has roots that go back to the classic liberals of the 18th Century who, in one form or another, were concerned with the power of the establishment to suppress an individual’s right or ability of free expression and action. Depending on the particular time and thinker, the establishment could be the monarchy, the aristocracy, the parliament, or even public opinion.

The same idea of liberty can be found today in the libertarian wing of the Right, such as the Tea Party. The concept has lasted, but the name has taken on its mirror image. Liberals today seek what Berlin calls positive liberty. Since Hegel’s time, this form of liberty has meant the ability of an individual to reach what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization. I call it flourishing. This concept assumes that it takes more than the absence of constraints for this to occur. Society, not only government, is needed to provide resources to support an individual’s development towards being liberated. Almost all discussion about liberty has a political slant, especially in the political history of the United States.

I want to take a different perspective in this post and discuss liberty from an existential point-of-view. I’ll start with Maslow, in hopes that he is more familiar than the existentialists. Maslow argued that self-actualization sat at the top of a hierarchy of psychological conditions that had to be satisfied in turn before one could actualize (realize) the “self.” These were in turn, basic physiology (subsistence), safety, love/belonging, esteem, and then self-actualization. His step-wise hierarchical formulation has been questioned, but not the requirement for the several inputs. It should be obvious that some, if not all, of these require a surrounding set of social institutions. Love, belonging, and esteem all come from outside the individual’s body. Negative liberty, the absence of any positive or negative encroachments, cannot create the whole human being, if Maslow’s model correctly tells us how humans are constituted.

Beyond Maslow, the first “existentialist” philosopher, Martin Heidegger, saw that human personas were formed in the course of life itself. Human beings are “thrown” into the world from which they acquire all the meaningful experience that shapes who they are. There is no inherent human nature or natural rights in the sense of the model that strongly influenced the early liberals and their belief in negative liberty. Without interaction with the world and all its institutions, one would remain an empty shell. But there is more to the story.

The immersion in life leaves its traces in the brain in the form of an autobiographical self, a storybook of all the meaningful memories one retains. The kind of person one becomes rests in the choices that one makes among the possibilities inherent in the story. Other existentialist philosophers, like Sartre, argue that the only meaningful thing humans can do is make those choices. He goes so far to say that humans are condemned be free, referring to the fundamental human feature of having to choose among the possibilities that one’s prior history has provided. Here are his words; “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”

So what kind of freedom is this: negative or positive? Not easy to answer. At the moment of choice, the individual is alone in the world with no apparent constraints. She would appear to be completely free from the negative liberty point-of-view. But is she? What about the part of the autobiography that was written earlier, and tells of the pressures, restraints, and rules placed on her by external institutional and personal happenings. If they were part of the context of the immediate choice, classic liberals and later libertarians would probably argue that they lack full negative liberty, and perhaps criticize those entities as encroaching on her liberty. But what if the choice is, in some part or entirely based on possibilities that have been created interactions with such external entities? Then, we would say that positive liberty is at hand, and modern liberals would applaud the existence of those institutions and, perhaps argue for more. They would be happy that people care for one another in the sense of interacting to increase the future possibilities of the targets of their care.

Heidegger can help a little here. He claimed that there are two forms of human existence: authentic and inauthentic. Inauthentic applies to actions coming from choices made on the basis of rules set by external entities. Examples would be the rules (shoulds or oughts) one learns at home from parent, lessons from schooling, or any rules set by government authority. Inauthentic life corresponds to a life lacking negative liberty, the kind of freedom that comes from absence of all these external rules. Authentic applies to actions coming from the actor’s own set of shoulds or oughts, which have been self-generated and embedded in the memory. Given the apparent absence of external constraints, authenticity appears to parallel negative freedom.

But to the extent that others have been involved in any positive way in creating possibilities, clearly something present in everyone’s life, there must be, at least, a bit of positive liberty in both authentic and inauthentic existence. John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” Authenticity is the mode of life that is arguably preferred by modern libertarians and classic liberals. It represent the fullest extent to which one’s individuality, those aspects the most set him or her as distinctive against all others can be attained. Incidentally, John Stuart Mill used the word, individuality, as his proxy for human development. But this says nothing about the extent of possibilities available to the individual.

A large dose of negative freedom and authenticity are not worth much if one has few possibilities to choose from, which is the condition of many poor in both the rich and the poor nations. The lack of possibilities in these cases is not due to external constraints. It comes from the lack positive, meaningful experience from which future possibilities are created. The lack of meaningful experience comes, in turn, from the lack resources to apply to whatever possibilities that one encounters. I hope you are beginning to see the contradictory nature of liberty and one’s potential for individuality or, again as I say, flourishing. There is a dialectical pattern to life that determines one’s future state of development.

Without external resources, no one can generate an autobiography full of positive possibility to call on as life moves along. Whether these resources are provided by human relationships or by societal institutions does not matter. They must be provided if one is to be able to find positive liberty in life, that is, the freedom to choose among many options or possibilities. Without past successes and the accumulation of resources, one lives in a vicious cycle: what might have, otherwise, been a possibility disappears. With sufficient resources, one lives within a virtuous cycle. Each successful choice opens up more future possibilities.

Disputation about the absence or presence of liberty is the wrong argument in any conversation aiming to improve the human condition. Human development-flourishing-depends on both. We should talk, rather, about care. Care entails actions of support, that is, providing resources, material or psychological, when their absence prevents us from achieving our intentions or objectives. We need others to care about us, whether those others are driven by familial or institutional motives. Although care is an action imposed from the outside, it is rendered is a manner reflecting the uniqueness of the receiver. This makes it distinct from the impersonal nature of most institutional interactions and the repressive effects on freedom, as expressed by negative liberty. While literally a similar source of diminished negative liberty, thus undesired, care is always a source of positive liberty. It increases the likelihood of present success and future possibilities.

Without sufficient worldly experience producing both the possibilities and the resources for choice one cannot flourish, even if he or she might claim they are free. One of the reasons that we are stuck in a bitter argument these days about whether there is too much or too little government is the absence of care from the world. Heidegger goes beyond what I wrote above to claim that the ontological foundation of human existence is care. Care, arising from the necessity to interact meaningfully with (care about) the world in the very process of living, is unique to human beings, he writes. If this were true, then I would expect to see much more support and resource building through relationships than institutional sources. But we do not. The trend appears to be going in the opposite direction. The causal chain in the last few sentences is the main theme of all my writing. Care has been pushed into the shadows by the forces of modernity, and with it the possibility of flourishing.

The best any human being can hope for is a life that generates enough authenticity to balance the inauthenticity inherent in those actions by which we incorporate resources and rules for their use from the outside world. Inconsistencies in the definition of freedom and liberty render them poor measures for designing societies. They are poor proxies for indicating the state of the human condition. Flourishing does a much better job, but is still difficult to clearly define or pin down. I believe it becomes present at some point when authenticity balances inauthenticity, that is, how often one acts from some internally generated source compared to externally imposed sources. One key difference in discussion of the two authenticities from liberty is that authenticity refers to the historical accumulation of constraints and resources, where liberty refers to the present moment.

As a final note, it is impossible to set some standard to find the proper balance point between authenticity and inauthenticity. Every individual and society must find it on their own. I am sure many will complain loudly about having to make that determination, but go back to Sartre and his admonition that human beings are condemned to be free. Not a bad verdict if we can get our thinking straight.

(Photo: Isaiah Berlin)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 15, 2016 4:04 PM ::

All It Takes Is Love (Not Covenants)


I’m back to responding to one of my favorite targets, David Brooks. Brooks, in his NYTimes column of April 5th, 2016, was expounding a theory to make the hyper-individualistic culture of the present more cohesive and socially binding, as a way to better anchor one’s sense of self. I find his argument completely unconvincing. It starts with his criticism of the present cultural situation.

When you think about it, there are four big forces coursing through modern societies. Global migration is leading to demographic diversity. Economic globalization is creating wider opportunity but also inequality. The Internet is giving people more choices over what to buy and pay attention to. A culture of autonomy valorizes individual choice and self-determination.

All of these forces have liberated the individual, or at least well-educated individuals, but they have been bad for national cohesion and the social fabric. Income inequality challenges economic cohesion as the classes divide. Demographic diversity challenges cultural cohesion as different ethnic groups rub against one another. The emphasis on individual choice challenges community cohesion and settled social bonds.

For starters, I disagree with his analysis of the forces that are dominating modern cultures. He is correct in pointing out impacts from the forces he identifies, but he ignores, for example, the corporatization of political economies everywhere. More importantly, he omits the anti-reality culture arising in both modern and traditional societies. The apposition of reason and dogma creates harder divisions than any of his causes. More seriously, he is completely unclear what he means by “liberated.” Liberated from what? (That’s the subject for another blog.)

On the way to his solution, he opines that, “You take away a rich social fabric and what you are left with is people who are uncertain about who they really are. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.” I believe his first sentence is wrong.

The correct measure of the strength of one’s individualism is authenticity, the presence of a strong sense of identity, couched in the brain, and manifest in the nature of one’s actions. The opposite, inauthenticity, is a measure of the degree to which external forces determine one’s actions in the world. As a phenomenologist, not a psychologist, I look at what shows up in the world as evidence of what kind of person one is. Individuals are always torn between two sets of motivating forces: those arising from the part of the brain that store the autobiographical record of one’s life (the me) and those arising from the call of external voices (the “they” out there). And who has ever said that it is important for society to live daringly. I’ll return to this, but, first, here is his solution. I have to quote several passages, sorry, but it is very important to see what he is suggesting.

We’re not going to roll back the four big forces coursing through modern societies, so the question is how to reweave the social fabric in the face of them. In a globalizing, diversifying world, how do we preserve individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity?

In her new book “Commonwealth and Covenant,” Marcia Pally of N.Y.U. and Fordham offers a clarifying concept. What we want, she suggests, is “separability amid situatedness.” We want to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living. But we also want to be situated — embedded in loving families and enveloping communities, thriving within a healthy cultural infrastructure that provides us with values and goals.

Creating situatedness requires a different way of thinking. When we go out and do a deal, we make a contract. When we are situated within something it is because we have made a covenant. A contract protects interests, Pally notes, but a covenant protects relationships. A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.

There are so many problems here that I hardly know where to start. Strengthening external ties does not mean a strengthening of one’s sense of self. Most of the time, the effect is in the opposite direction. Before the long quote above, I noted that humans are always in a dilemma, having to decide to act on the basis of some inner voice (“I usually do this”) or on that of the external world (“One should do this in this situation”). I believe that, alone, Pally’s (and Brooks’s) solution would not work because “situation” means some recognizable moment with historical meaning in which action is already selected.

This is further confounded by the suggestion that some form of covenant be employed to strengthen the sense of situation, taking the individual even further from his or her authentic self. The existence of a covenant, rather than the enaction of love and care, does the opposite. Covenants are reciprocal promises to act in certain ways. As I understand love, covenants are necessary only in the absence of love. Love is a unidirectional and unconditional concept. Love is manifest in actions arising from two sources: 1) one’s acknowledgement of legitimacy of the other’s existence as an autonomous entity; and 2) one’s holding the belief that to be human is to care, that is, act to serve what they perceive to be the other’s immediate needs.

Forming covenants will strengthen the sense of interconnections and relationality, as Brooks writes, but will not build a sense of authentic identity. It will do just the opposite. The person will act in a more social sense, but in an inauthentic manner. So the solution does not fit the stated problem-to build more authenticity or rooted sense of self; it would work in opposition. The more effective, and perhaps, only way to accomplish what Brooks and Pally want (so do I) is to replace the modernistic, individualistic core belief by direct action.

If all important cultural institutions, say the political economy, are based on the belief that individual should act out of their self (economic) interests, that is, on Homo economicus as our nature, it is virtually impossible to instill a different belief by means where the new belief is not evident and dominating. The sociological theory I find most consistent with the way the brain is being understood to work (plastic and coupled to experience) is that of Anthony Giddens. His structuration model indicates that the constitutive beliefs of a society (e. g., Homo economicus) are reinforced by routine action (normal behavior) within the dominant societal institutions.

The more that actions are determined by preexisting rules in the form of social norms and covenants among subsets of society, the less daring people will be. Daring actions are those that fit the circumstances where the usual are seen to fail. We do need authenticity badly for this to happen. Loving relationships are a key to a flourishing human, that is, to one that has attained her or his biological and cultural potential. To love takes much more than a covenant; it takes empathetic competence. My wife, a former well-know divorce lawyer, was opposed to anti-nuptial agreements on that basis. Neither contracts nor covenants can anticipate what situations may arise in the future. Only unconditional love and care provides the open context for dealing with them.

I’m afraid that the solutions to the widespread problem of feeling insubstantial and unsatisfied-all too real today-will take a much more nuanced and challenging foundation. Having just written this, stronger covenantal relationships are a good thing on their own and can help restore the wholeness of our cultural interconnections, but stop at that point. My sustainability mantra echoes the same limited possibility: “Reducing unsustainability, while good on its own, will not create sustainability.”

ps. Click here to listen to the Beatles sing the blog title song.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 6, 2016 2:13 PM ::