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 ::
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 5, 2016 8:56 AM ::
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 ::
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:
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.
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 ::
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 ::
“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 ::
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 ::
In searching for an old paper of mine from 2004, I found this definition of sustainability. It was the first version that I had written down. No mention of flourishing, but I find it an interesting step away from the Brundtland definition of sustainable development.
Sustainability is a possible way of living or being in which individuals, firms, governments, and other institutions act responsibly in taking care of the future as if it belonged to them today, in equitably sharing the ecological resources on which the survival of human and other species depends, and in assuring that all who live today and in the future will be able to satisfy their needs and human aspirations.
The Brundtland definition is still present in the last parts, but laying on us the responsibility for the future is new. The complexity context is there in the recognition that any new future state of a complex system is always only a possibility. That tomorrow will be the same as today is also only a possibility. Hmm
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 25, 2016 7:37 PM ::
I am taking a course at my school for retirees (read, old folks like me) on the roots of liberalism and am currently reading the works of John Stuart Mill, who remains a cornerstone for thinking about liberty. The class this week included a reading of Chapter 3, “Of individuality, as one of the elements of well-being, from On Liberty, his still in-print set of essays, originally published in 1859. This Chapter follows one in which he lays out his case for protecting freedom of expression and discussion. It is as valid today as it was in the 19th Century. Arguing that freedom of expression/thought is of little practical value unless it is accompanied by freedom of action, he wrote that one should be able to think and act free of any encroachment, except where the thought or act harms another person.
A longish passage caught my eye as I was reading. Mill writes in the style of his times, often very long convoluted sentences that stretch almost a full paragraph in length. He was arguing that freedom of action was essential for the full development of human beings. Here is the passage. This comes after a critique of what he sees as the dominance of conformity in British society.
It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others, develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint. If acquiesced in, it dulls and blunts the whole nature. To give any fair-play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity. Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.
Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?
I read this as a definition of flourishing, very close to the one I have been using, as attaining the full human potential. He is examining only the cultural piece. Look at the second paragraph. Earlier he touched on what I have been calling authenticity, differentiating between acts from within and those following traditions or custom. Here is what he wrote about this.
It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.
On Liberty is Mill’s argument that the present norms and social structures in Victorian England are squelching individual liberty, both of thought and action. He blames both public opinion (social norms) and government practices. His language is often stilted relative to today’s styles, but the thought is clear. That he feels it necessary to write such a powerful critique supports my argument that flourishing has been recognized as central to human being in the past, but that it has languished under the cultural realities of the time. It is no different today. The world is much changed, but cultural force still repress flourishing. Anyway, I feel ever more empowered to write about flourishing and how to create it today when I find such strong evidence in the work of such thinkers as Mill.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 24, 2016 8:59 PM ::
I am back at work on a book, but finding a new structure for it. Both my previous books were basically critiques of the “modern” paradigm, that is, the set of beliefs and norms that has been driving much of Western culture for hundreds of years. I see unsustainability, a collection of persistent, significant problems, as evidence that this paradigm is no loner befitting of today’s world. I still strongly believe that this is the case, but have a new argument as well.
I have come to see flourishing, not simply as an evocative normative vision, but as an element of human and other life forms’ ontological structure. It is part and parcel of what and who we are. Flourishing is a description of the state of attaining one’s potential. This framing takes some careful explaining. I started to do this in the last handful of posts to this blog, but it takes some repetition and reworking. That’s what this post is doing. If you haven’t read the previous post, you probably should before you start on this one.
The word, potential, is inherently teleological; it suggests that there is some end toward which the passage of time is taking us, and if we do the right things, we will reach it.. (This is the foundation of modernity and its vision of progress, a fundamentally teleological concept.) Otherwise stated, it suggests that there is some inherent purpose to life or to the cosmos. This statement, by itself, is not problematic for the many who attribute our presence on the Earth as the work of God. It is much more difficult to locate any purpose in the mechanistic, objective worldview of modernity.
Science, which reveals the inner workings of the universe, can describe the functions and interactions of almost all objects, including human beings, but cannot ascribe a purpose to them. The Big Bang model of how the cosmos came to exist is awesome and miraculous, but purposeless. The origin of life is also a miracle. I am defining miracle as Loyal Rue does in his book, Nature is Enough. A miracle is “any event, the occurrence of which is so radically impossible as to be completely unbelievable.” There is nothing about the hand of some transcendent designer in this definition.
If we examine living organisms carefully, an apparent purpose becomes evident. Life forms exist to maintain their life. Rue calls this trait, viability. I am more convinced by the biologically based work of Varela and Maturana who called the basic life process, autopoiesis, meaning continuous self-[re]producing. (See their book, The Tree of Knowledge) No living species can be found that does not act to keep itself alive as a fundamental process. Rue takes pains to label this feature an objective feature of life, thus attributing an inherent teleology to it. To live is to act to maintain life. For humans there is more to it than this, but all life shares this purpose. Contrary to my earlier arguments that humans have no inherent nature, I accept this one: that the fundamental purpose of life is to preserve viability, that is to stay alive. Evolution doesn’t change this basic feature, it merely changes the structures of organisms, improving the viability along the way. Less miraculous, perhaps, than the initial appearance of life, but a pretty miraculous process all the same.
For most non-human species, the process of living goes through a series of development stages, based on their genes, as their structure changes from simple cellular forms to increasingly complex structures to senescent forms and finally death. If a non-human species is successful in moving through all these stages, it will have attained everything that was potentially available in its genes. I equate this with biological flourishing. (Extinction is the polar opposite to flourishing.) Human beings follow the same pattern and have an equivalent biological, genetic potential, which, if attained, constitutes the same biological flourishing. But this is not everything for humans and a few other species that have developed cultures, that is, patterns of behavior that have been invented for purposes beyond those associated with the expression of the basic viability drive.
Our human ancestors have been on Earth for a very long time. For most of this time, there is agreement that they lived in ways not very different from other animal species, as hunter gatherers in small migratory groups. To the extent that they survived and reproduced, they flourished. Along the way, as they evolved, they developed language-symbolic representation of worldly phenomena-that enabled intentional action and social coordination. About 35,000 years ago in a period known to anthropologists and archaeologists as the “Great Leap Forward,” human cultures boomed. Here’s what Jared Diamond says about this event.
We know that our lineage arose in Africa, diverging from that of chimpanzees and gorillas, sometime between 6 and 10 million years ago. For most of the time since then we have been little more than glorified baboons. As recently as 35,000 years ago western Europe was still occupied by Neanderthals, primitive beings for whom art and progress scarcely existed. Then there was an abrupt change. Anatomically modern people appeared in Europe and, suddenly, so did sculpture, musical instruments, lamps, trade, and innovation. Within a few thousand years the Neanderthals were gone.
The very slow pace of evolutionary changes suddenly accelerated. Something new emerged. Emergence is a key explanatory process that accounts for the sudden appearance of new orderly structures in otherwise apparently random systems, for example, the evolutionary process. Life, itself, as evidenced by organisms driven by autopoietic processes, is a phenomenon that emerged during the chain of events that has shaped the cosmos since the Big Bang. Both life and the subsequent emergence of human culture have no inherent meaning or purpose, per se, but created meaning in the subsequent histories of the species. The great leap forward was a period of increasing complexity as human beings interacted more frequently and technology brought new challenges to everyday life.
Humans are driven by a fundamental viability or autopoiesis, and a similar purposeful existence to maintain cultural integrity. Alternatively, one can ascribe a “nature” to human beings as creatures that seek and find meaningful lives. The cultural part is historically based, emerging during the Great Leap Forward; the biological piece has been there since living entities first emerged from the primordial soup.
I have taken lots of words to lay out this story because it is new to me and also because my prior writings make a big deal out of disparaging the idea of human nature. This emergent human “nature” is categorically different from the one I have criticized previously. The modern notion of humans is that they are inherently rational, self-interested creatures, always driven to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. This has become narrowed to an economistic view by equating pleasure with material properties, so that wealth acquisition is now the primary societal driver. The “real” human nature is meta to this as a more abstract drive for preserving life and cultural integrity. The modern view is simply a description of a historical, idiosyncratic instantiation, but is not absolute. If it were, we could all fold our tents and disappear over the horizon because, then, the economic game we have been playing, assuming infinite resources in a finite world, has only a zero-sum outcome. Nature wins, we lose.
Loyal Rue bifurcates the cultural purposive, meaningful trajectory into personal wholeness and social coherence. He builds this upon an assumption that these were the two domains of life that the humans paid most attention to during the great leap forward and later. I would label individuals and societies that attained these two states as flourishing. At any time in history, such ends can be defined as the attainment of the human cultural potential, leading to my definition of flourishing as the attainment of individual and collective potential. The connection between individual and collective flourishing also arises from the emergent process in which the two were indistinguishable. The distinction is the result of the analysis, rather than being functionally separate.
If the observed nature of humans is only a historical artifact, resting on top of the fundamental drive to preserve culture, then it can be changed by introducing new cultural structure that would induce new patterns of behavior. Caution is necessary because the configuration of emergent states cannot be predicted, but I believe we already have a very good sense of how to proceed.
I will end today with a short discussion aimed at tying this blog to my previous work. The categories of Rue, above, correspond to my use of care as the basic ontology of human Being. Caring actions are intentional acts aimed at producing or preserving the cultural conditions for flourishing. I use four categories in analyzing care: care for the self, other humans, the rest of the world, and transcendence. The first lines up directly with “personal wholeness.” The other three are dimensions of social coherence, which I would define as paying attention to one’s connections with the world outside of oneself with the intent of maintaining the coherence of that world..
The challenge posed by creating a flourishing world is two-fold. The first step is to adopt the meaningful flourishing model of human nature in place of the modernist, economistic model, and establish it as the primary goal for the individual, societal, and natural world domains. Then, once that is done, begin to introduce changes in the structures of institutions, starting with the society and working down to all the institutions nested within the society. First, inject the belief about humans as caring creatures, pursuing a meaningful existence. Next, because the effectiveness of caring or any intentional action depends on the closeness of the actors’ presuppositions about the nature of reality to reality itself, introduce practices to enrich the context that surrounds whatever processes are called on in creating and expressing the act. The last statement is worth repeating because we don’t usually think about it. Our effectiveness in living depends on the match between the models we hold in our individual and collective “minds” and the real world. If they are exact, our intentions will be precisely met. Given that the models we actually use are rarely exact because they lack specific context for the immediate situation, our actions do not produce the intended outcome perfectly. The more context relevant to the immediate situation we can add, the more likely we will get what we intended. See my blog of February 3 for a discussion of the role of context.
ps. The last 6-8 posts have common threads and are somewhat repetitious. They illustrate the challenge of finding clear, accessible language and images to present what are becoming the foundational ideas for my work. I appreciate your willingness to hang in there.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 21, 2016 10:23 AM ::