“Want of Care Does Us More Damage than Want of Knowledge” (B. Franklin)


I warn you from the start that this blog is going to get pretty academic, but it’s necessary. I have been writing about care as a fundamental human characteristic, so fundamental that our being rests on it. One path to this assertion comes from philosophy; the other from biology. Both come together along the way. I will start with the philosophical and the ontological propositions of Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger claims that humans construct a meaningful world by interacting routinely with the primal, meaningless world. Natural objects and the artifacts we make become distinct through these interactions. They become named and settle into our vocabularies to be called upon whenever we want to enlist others in our intentions or to explain our own actions. The words that denote position or temporal relationships became prepositions, and the language used to describe actions creates verbs.

Human being (existence) is different from that of other forms because we are always acting in the world we create with these distinctions. Only humans can explain what is going on. Only humans can ask questions about existence, and the answers can be framed only through the language that has historically accumulated through these routines. Heidegger’s philosophy is close to Anthony Giddens’s sociology; both follow what Giddens calls structuration. Meaning comes through practice (routine actions) and becomes embodied in meaning-giving structure of societies or organizations, for example, beliefs and norms. The structure, in turn, reproduces the routines. Giddens, interestingly, uses language as an example of his model. Language enables coordinated action and becomes further embedded in the collective “mind” in the course of the action.

Care, in Heidegger’s sense, refers to our actions directed to the world we create. We create our world through these intentional actions (care) and the world thus created in language enables us to think about ourselves as beings. Heidegger writes, “Language is the house of being.” Heidegger mades no distinctions about categories of care, but I find it useful to divide our routines into a set of distinct domains for analytic ease and clarity. I posted my domains in a blog about 10 days ago. These also appear in chapter 12 of my book. Humans have had no choice but to care for (direct actions to) the material world. We are always acting in a world; care describes the whole of our actions. The idea of care makes no presumptions or assumptions about a mind or of psychological drivers. It comes out of direct observations of what is going on and the creation of language to tell stories about what the observer saw.

The biology of Maturana (pictured) and Varela develops a similar scenario. All living organisms exhibit autopoiesis, a process of continuous re-production of their structure, fueled by the intake of energy and materials. But organization, their general configuration resulting from the arrangement of the structural elements, remains constant. The organism changes its structure, but not its organization, in response to changes in its environment, a process Maturana and Varela call “structural coupling.” As long as the organization remains intact, the organism continues to live, but if the organization changes a new form emerges or the old one dies.

The cognitive system of more developed species, especially humans, is structurally coupled to the environment. It produces actions based on the structure in place at the time of the “signals” impinging on the senses. These actions are structurally determined. At the same time, the structure changes as a consequence of the interactions: the same sort of circularity as in Heidegger or Giddens. The structural modification will change the subsequent responses, indicating, in the common use of the term, that the organism has learned something, or that the organism has acquired knowledge about the world. Maturana and Varela say that “All doing is knowing and all knowing is doing.” The structures that enable intentional, meaningful action (doing) arise historically (over the lifetime) through action (knowing) and the actions (doing) produce new structure (knowing). If we associate the cognitive structure of Maturana and Varela with language, we come to the same place as Heidegger does: an important place for sustainability.

One consequence is that if care is taken to be the basic trait that makes us human, not just another animal species, the economic and sociological models that shape our institutions don’t work. The important motivator is not “need,” which is now used in virtually all these models. Need is a fundamental underpinning of microeconomics (demand), marketing practice, therapies, and more. Our needs, by definition, can never be satisfied, and propel us to levels of consumption that are using up more than the Earth can provide. Care is never finished (until we die), but we can declare we have satisfied, for the time being various domains and move to work in others. Care is grounded in relationships and can often be exercised without the use of material goods.

A second important consequence is that this model of learning and knowledge contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. The position of scientific or technical “knowledge” is no longer privileged. Virtually all methodologies used to set policy or make collective decisions become questionable. The technocratic processes that dominate decision making and management would have to be replaced with pragmatic frameworks. Pragmatism couples the model of Maturana and Varela with a criterion for assessing the effectiveness of the outcomes obtained by deliberating perturbing a system, that is, induce changes in the structure. If the system works better, the perturbation was good; if it doesn’t, try another modification. Truth is then manifest in outcomes that work as desired. Since we can never know enough (conventional knowledge) about the complex systems on which sustainability rests to produce the desired end of flourishing, some form of pragmatic governance is essential; one that produces knowledge by doing.