June 2014 Archives

Empathy and Truth Are Companions


empathy When all you have is a hammer, everything looks just like a nail. In my case, right now, I am immersed in existentialism and everything I read reeks of it. Here’s what I mean. Linda Greenhouse’s column in the NYTimes today was a commentary on the just-issued decision to ban warrantless cellphone searches. Her theme was that when the issue at hand is something the justices can relate to personally, the opinion could be said to more humane, less ideological. Here’s the closing paragraph.

I had planned to conclude my discussion of the court and the search cases with a mention of “empathy,” the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, so often missing from the Supreme Court’s criminal law decisions but perhaps on display here. But on reflection, it’s not really empathy. The justices are walking in their own shoes. The ringing cellphone could be theirs — or ours.

The tie to existentialism is in what Greenhouse started to call empathy, but changed her mind. It was a sense of concreteness that is missing from most cases. Existentialism has roots in phenomenology which is characterized by a focus on the thing itself, as its founder, Edmund Husserl, said. What he meant was that to appreciate the concreteness of a perception, one had to bracket one’s ever present presuppositions and beliefs about what the object held in consciousness “is.” Existentialism grew out of the application of phenomenology to human beings, reflecting their peculiar thingness. Humans are unlike anything other being. Existentialism grew out, in part, of the criticism of applying scientific thinking to the human condition and human behavior.

Science works through abstractions, generalizations made from the particular conditions of the observations on which they are based. Abstraction is “the act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances.” Except for very special cases, if they ever do exist, abstraction always omits something from the concrete situation being viewed. When I argue, as I often do, that unsustainability is an unintended consequence of modernity, I am referring to the general tendency to scientize everything with the result that the concrete reality of life is incompletely represented in our decision-making processes, results in these surprises.

Arguing that the world is complex, not machine-like, is another way of getting at the inability of abstractions, the heart and soul of science, to give us precise enough tools to create the future we, as human beings, are always moving toward. (You will find another existential fundament in this last statement.) My usual counter to the ubiquitous use of positivistic frameworks for all our “problems” is to apply pragmatic thinking and processes to find our way through these problematic situations. The essence of pragmatism is simply that every situation is concrete (and complex) and it possible to develop effective solutions only by careful observation of the situation without the blinders and distortions put in place (consciously and unconsciously) by one’s presuppositions. Such pragmatic solutions are the “right ones” to apply, but may lack the “truth” to be found through positivistic methods.

Empathy is another word that fits the existential, phenomenological context for acting. Empathy means uncovering the “truth” that forms the context for another’s actions. Putting yourself in someone’s shoes is an incomplete metaphor for empathy. To be fully empathetic, you need to get into another’s head (a different, but more accurate, metaphor) where you would find the basis of their actions. I put truth in parentheses to indicate that the truth involved in creating human action is different from the truths given to us by science and all forms of positivistic thinking. It is different from ideological beliefs which are also abstractions taken from life, but without the benefit and universality of scientific methodology.

Existentially or phenomenologically derived truth is a statement about whatever concrete situation it refers to. It is the antithesis of scientific truth which is explicitly a generalized statement. Scientific truths assume the constancy of phenomena. Newton’s law applies at any instant. Gravity dose not change over time. Any situation which involves human beings is unique in time and confounds attempts to find generalized truths to describe it.

So now back to the Supreme Court. Laws are forms of generalization, rules designed to apply to general circumstances. The legal system recognizes the existential character of human action and often requires the finding of “intent” and examines the context of a life when passing sentence. But ultimately laws are intended to govern human behavior and to protect one’s humanness. Given that, for practical purposes, laws are written to apply in general, the concreteness of human existence always takes a hit in any particular case. Our legal system of jury trial by a panel of one’s peers and the availability of appeal attempts to return concreteness and “truth” to the system, but does it only imperfectly.

Greenhouse is pointing this out to us in her article. She gives other examples where the decision comes in situations outside the context of the judge’s normal existence.

The Roberts court has too often been on the wrong side of history, most pointedly in its retrograde refusal to protect the right to vote; Wednesday was the first anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, the shameful 5-to-4 decision that undermined the Voting Rights Act. When it comes to technology, however, the court seems free of ideological baggage and is trying hard, collectively, to get it right.

Justice Kagan’s appointment to the Court was complicated by the President’s mention of empathy in his discussion of what qualities he would look for in a nominee. During her confirmation hearings, the following Q and A with Senator Kyl took place.

Kyl: Let me start by asking you the standard for judges in approaching cases that we talked about, starting with the president’s idea. I’ll remind you. He’s used a couple of different analogies — one was to a 26-mile marathon — and said that in hard cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the first 25 miles… . He says the critical ingredient in those cases is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart, or the depth and breadth of a judge’s empathy. My first question is, do you agree with him that the law only takes you the first 25 miles of the marathon, and that the last mile has to be decided by what’s in the judge’s heart?
Kagan: Senator Kyl, I think it’s law all the way down. It’s — when a case comes before the court, parties come before the court, the question is not do you like this party or do you like that party, do you favor this cause or do you favor that cause. The question is — and this is true of constitutional law, it’s true of statutory law — the question is what the law requires. Now, there are cases in which it is difficult to determine what the law requires. Judging is not a robotic or automatic enterprise, especially on the cases that get to the Supreme Court. A lot of them are very difficult. And people can disagree about how the constitutional text or precedent — how they apply to a case. But it’s law all the way down, regardless.

I find this colloquy an example of how stilted our public dialogue has become. There is no contradiction between applying the law all the way down and approaching the case empathetically. Empathy is a stance taken to understand what was or is in play in another’s actions. It does not reside in one’s heart even metaphorically. It is a wholly cognitive process wherein one examines a situation after putting aside one’s prejudices, presuppositions and anything else that impairs locating the “truth.” It is an antidote to ideology, methodology, and prejudice. Senator Kyl confuses it with compassion, which is an emotion related to concern another’s situation. In the long run, the rule of law in the US is grounded on the concept of protecting the concrete individuality of every real human being. One would have to say that, on this point, that our founding fathers were existentialists.

Why democracy is Necessary for Flourishing


small d

Before you write me that there is a typo in the title, don’t bother. The small “d” is intentional. I am not writing about the big sense of Democracy, as in Democracy versus Socialism or any other political ideology. I want to focus on democracy as a particular way of interacting at all scales from families all the way to nations. If we are to flourish as both individuals and a global community, we must change our routine behaviors, that is our norms, such that the unintended consequences that are producing unsustainability and the growing departure form our common visions disappear entirely or shrink to a point that they become insignificant.

It is clear that we cannot solve our problems, if unsustainability or the loss of any part of our American Dream is deemed a “problem,” by applying the standard methodologies derived from our unreflected reliance of positive knowledge and its fruits in the form of technology and rational decision-making (technocracy). The clarity of this statement derives from both a philosophical/systems stance that argues that no problem can be solved by restricting our thinking and choices to the knowledge domain that we used in creating the conditions causing the problem (paraphrasing Einstein’s famous quote), and the practical/experiential sense that we observe the situation as worsening.

As I have written elsewhere, the way out of this dilemma is to start thinking and acting distinctly differently. Not just any old way, for example, relying on miracles, other than the familiar positivism, but thinking and acting pragmatically. Pragmatism is an extraordinarily powerful way to shape the beliefs that underly normal behavior, but, because we only rarely consciously use it, have many misconceptions about it. The nature of the beliefs that pragmatism creates is what makes it so important, not the method itself.

Pragmatism has a very interesting history. It grew out of the work of C. S. Peirce, a nineteenth century American logician and philosopher. Peirce began his investigations with an inquiry about how ideas (concepts) became fixed in the mind and then formed the ground for habitual behavior. This connection, made by others than Peirce, is critical to understanding how persistent problems arise and how they can be eliminated. Peirce was interested in individuals but the same connection between beliefs and routine behavior guides collective behavior. Institutional norms (routines, habits) are the result of enacting the rooted beliefs shared within the institution.

His colleague and fellow pragmatist, William James’s affirmation that if, under certain conditions, a belief creates actions that makes one happy, the belief can be accepted as true. So if a belief in the existence of God makes life satisfying in many ways, then it is not necessary to be able to prove this by rational or scientific methods. In practice, the conditions James set forth are largely overlooked. To accept such a belief without an acceptable proof, the consequences of the choice to believe or not has to be live, forced, and momentous. It has to a matter of serious concern (live), unavoidable (forced) and make a real difference (momentous). For atheists, the question of the existence of God does match any or all of these conditions

James’s criteria for accepting a belief is not the same as other pragmatists, although it might seem so, and he has been criticized for it as a consequence. The “standard” notion of pragmatism is that a concept (belief) that produces satisfactory results when used to underpin action can be accepted as meaningful (right, not true). Peirce’s so-called pragmatic maxim ties a meaningful concept to the sum total of all the effects (desired and not) it produces.

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

Such meaningful beliefs come with another condition, different from James’s criterion. The beliefs must be generated by a rigorous inquiry by a community of interested parties, that is, people concerned about the outcome, not the belief. Pierce thought the process should follow scientific methods, but others relaxed the process, but not the rigor or community aspects.

The key difference between James and the rest is that James’s “truth” had to work only for the person considering the outcomes. It did not matter how badly the rest of the world might fare. He completely ignored the possibility of unintended consequences outside of the context of the believer. Pierce and Dewey argued for a community that included all those with an interest in the outcome, so, if an inquiry produced a belief that pleased some but not all, the inquiry would have to continue until some sort of consensus were reached.

Peirce would not accept a jihadist’s claim of the existence of a God instructing him to slay the infidels as pragmatically meaningful since he (Peirce) presumably would have an interest in remaining alive. This is one reason why one should be careful in quickly accepting beliefs made under James’s criterion. Both James’s beliefs and those of conventional pragmatism can be called faiths (small f), but they are categorically distinct, a very important difference.

The rightness of a pragmatically derived belief springs from its origins from a community of inquirers, perhaps including some acting as agents for others. If it produces an outcome all are happy with, it carries normative legitimacy. If the outcomes are normatively desirable, the belief they are based on can be considered right, but not necessarily true. John Dewey tied democracy and pragmatism together arguing that all who have an interest in the outcome (everybody in a democratic nation) should be involved in the inquiry, and that pragmatic beliefs, not ideologies should form the foundation for collective action.

Scientific beliefs could be considered as pragmatic, that is, meaningful, within the scientific community. Peirce thought so. But since science has been accepted as producing truths about the world, scientific beliefs (theories) are also considered to tell the truth. For non-scientists, who are non-interested, non-inquirers, such beliefs may not be accepted as true or meaningful with serious societal consequences. Creationism and climate change denial are two such current cases. Flourishing depends on having a world view that avoids unintended consequences bearing on individuals and on the whole of society. Only pragmatic experience can do that, but pragmatism won’t work without a democratic core of interested and concerned people.

ps. I have been reading texts about existentialism this summer and, although pragmatism is rarely mentioned, this broad area of inquiry and action seems to me to be very similar in its focus on concrete, not abstract experience, when human beings are concerned. When the richness of concrete experience is reduced to abstract concepts, something always get omitted. The result is the appearance of unintended consequences. When almost everything we do as a society is based on abstractions or theory, those unintended consequences have become what we now call unsustainability.

Even the NYTimes Needs Critical Thinking



Let’s go back to first principles. Call it automation, call it robots, or call it technology; it all comes down to the concept of producing more with fewer workers. Far from being a scary prospect, that’s a good thing. Becoming more efficient (what economists call “productivity”) has always been central to a growing economy. Without higher productivity, wages can’t go up and standards of living can’t improve.

What’s wrong with this quote? It appeared in an oped piece, by Steven Rattner in today’s (June 22, 2014) NYTimes Sunday Review section. The topic, as this quote suggests, was about the “danger” of losing jobs to more innovation. Here’s a one-liner about him from Wikipedia: “Steven Lawrence Rattner is an American financier who served as lead adviser to the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry in 2009 for the Obama administration.”

Two of the five sentences are arguably true and two false. Which ones? The first one is a simple request, neither true or false. The second one is true as it merely defines the topic. The third one is false, at least according to my calculus. This sentence typifies the problem with economics. It may be true or false depending on the premises that are either stated or unstated (as they are here). Presumably producing more using less labor creates a producer surplus, assuming (unstated) that people will continue to buying the excess production at the same price. The truth of the statement depends on how that surplus is distributed. If it goes to the capitalists, it will exacerbate income inequality. In the aggregated accounting of standard economics, distribution isn’t counted and carries no moral weight.

If you do not care about who shares in the surplus, then the statement can be held to be true. But for those who believe that those who own the capital, at least in the affluent US, don’t need more wealth to flourish, this statement is patently false. To the argument that capitalists include many of the working class through investments of pension funds in the capital markets, I would counter that those so represented are those who were holding jobs at the time their funds were added to the pot.

No matter how you explain or justify inequality, it is a fact. It is a fact starkly contradicting the very fundament of our country: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In our secular age, the phrase pointing to the Creator as the source is longer to be translated literally. We are equal, perhaps, only immediately after we emerge from the womb, but given the huge difference in the realities of life that surrounds every one of us from the moments of our births, the idea of some endowment of equality is more a myth than a fact.

I will return to this shortly, but onto the next sentence. The next sentence is true within the workings of conventional economics. It is simply a verbal statement of the mathematics of neoclassical economics. Efficiency is central to economic growth, ceteris paribus (the infamous all other things being equal that without which economists would be lost), but the irrelevance of the truth of that statement shows up in the next and key sentence. Wages can certainly go up without higher productivity. That they don’t is a sign of the amorality of the capitalist system. Walmart can, without any real restraints, increase the wages of its employees. Of course that would mean that the Walton family and other shareholders would have to settle for less. If the top managers of many corporations would accept wages below those which have become no less than obscene, workers could earn more without a dime’s worth of change in the P&L.

Having shown that wages can go up even without gains in efficiency, the last clause also becomes false. That, however, is not the real problem with this last clause. It is neither true or false, but irrelevant. “Standard of living” is an arbitrary term having little to do with how people actually do exist. It perhaps measures what stuff they have around them to assist in daily chores. It is used by economists and others (politicians) primarily because it can be enumerated, and, as every first-year MBA student knows well, things have to be measured if they are to be managed. I agree that “things” do need to be measured to be managed, but life is not a thing. What matters to human beings, even if they ignore it, is the quality of their existence, and quality is difficult, if impossible, to manage. Ask Picasso if he created his works by measuring, or in another related metaphor, try to create a masterpiece with a paint-by-numbers kit.

I could go on for quite a while exposing Rattner’s prose for what it is: an arbitrary set of sentences build on many hidden presuppositions, but I want to close on a different subject. What I have just written is a rudimentary example of critical thinking. Critical thinking is little more than passing what one sees and hears though a set of “truth” filters. As this tiny example indicates, more so-called truths offered up in public (and private) conversations is the end of a chain of reasoning based on unstated presumptions and presuppositions. Only if one is aware of all these precursors to what is heard or seen, can one assess the truth of a statement. Since the world works best, maybe only, when the truth comes straight from the world, the importance of critical thinking should be clear.

Yes, you may say, “John is not telling us anything new,” but then, “Why are your children being less exposed to critical thinking than more by the growing emphasis on the so-called STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and math).” I find this very ironic in view of the few sentences I have cribbed to start this post. These (STEM) are the very subjects that are assumed to be the basis of the improvements in efficiency that will cost some of these very students their jobs in the future. When that happens and someone says to them, “Sorry, but it’s a fact of life that with more efficiency comes less jobs,” they will not have the tools to dig down to discover the arbitrariness behind that “truth.” And without that ability, they can do very little about the quality of their lives. Vaclav Havel, the intellectual liberator and President of Czechoslovakia, wrote, “Keep the company of those who seek the truth-run from those who have found it” Steven Rattner is a small example of the many who claim to have found it.

All About Care (Part 1)



The notion of care is central to my way to flourishing. I found it among my forays into philosophy while trying to understand more about just about everything. The notion of care or concern is central to Heidegger’s ontology of human Being. Like most people, I have struggled hard to get what Heidegger is saying and a clear sense of how he got there. Understanding what it is to exist as a human being is necessary and prior to fully appreciate what flourishing is. So before I get to care, a preface about Being. In my use of the term, flourishing, I not only mean possessing the minimal means to survive biologically and culturally, but also to have a consciousness of fully realizing the possibilities that human existence is and entails. Flourishing clearly is more than the mere possession of things or some psychological state, as is the measure of human well-being in our economically constituted world.

I have been helped in slowly understanding what Heidegger was talking about by reading a number of books about existentialism, and the philosophers and others who have come to be discussed under this rubric. Heidegger’s work on Being was a key stepping stone for Sartre and other existentialist scholars even though Heidegger refused to be labeled as such. I will attempt to recap Heidegger’s arrival at “care” as the innermost aspect of human Being in but a few words. Human beings exist in a different mode than all other beings, animate or not. Heidegger started with the point that humans, alone, reflect on and have questions about their existence in the world. He also deflected the claim that he was dealing, not with philosophy, but anthropology. I find the distinction mostly irrelevant, as I am about to enter into an anthropological thought experiment that will arrive at the same position about the centrality of care to human existence.

My imaginative story starts back about a couple of hundred thousand years ago when language first appeared. As I read the literature, it is still arguable which came first: language capability as a genetic mutation or social evolution. (See note at the bottom) It makes no different to my argument. What matters is only that Homo sapiens is unique among all living creatures in possessing a complex language. It seems essential to me that language evolved along with consciousness of the world that formed the context for existence. It is clear from early cave paintings and other symbolic representation of early humans that they were conscious of the world around them and saw meaning out there. That they represented the world in some form of medium signifies that they “cared” about their conscious milieu. The act of representation illustrates an intentional stance toward the world; world appeared in their consciousness as a collection of distinct beings that showed up through their actions—reducing them to paintings was one way to do this.

It is not a big step to move from painting to the spoken word. Like painting, it was an experiment using the intimate connection between the cognitive system and the body. Some human, intent upon the world and with some project “in mind,” uttered an intelligible sound and pointed to the object of her attention. Probably only after repeated tries did the other “get” the meaning of the object as something that was to be cared for, that is, acted upon in a particular way. Before spoken language, humans almost certainly communicated through gesture which, as a form of language, expressed intention. Spoken language, then, was an innovation of immense importance since the possibilities for conveying meaning or intention were almost without limit.

The world in which action was taking place was always prior to whatever means of communicating was to be used. The words most probably first only referred to objects in the world and later to the spatial orientation of and to descriptions of intended actions involving these objects. The concept of the self with feelings and other inner states likely developed only much later. Language grew as human culture became more sophisticated and took in more of the world in the domain of intention, that is, caring about different things and different actions. Human existence, or Being, was captured in language, not in the words, per se, but in the medium of language. That is perhaps why Heidegger called language the house of Being. Human existence was experienced in the context of care. The essence of being human was care. In the language of existentialism—existence precedes essence. Except for some obvious instincts, like fear, the meaning of human Being is not to be found in some inner essence as the Greeks and others thought. Humans create meaning in the process of existing which meaning has come down to us through the language we use to transform our perceptions into meaningful statements that others can relate to. As I will discuss in later posts, the direct concrete connection between language and Being has become diffuse and even hidden from us.

It is not hard to take this very simple model of the origin of our species and derive an ethic of responsibility from the raw meaning of care as intentionally interacting with the world. Intentionality entails picking out a specific set of phenomena and acting within their context. There is a pragmatic sense to this form of intentionality; the actor had a future state in mind and acts to bring it into the present. Heidegger described this characteristic as the fundamental temporality of Being, and deliberately named his classic work, Being and Time. If he or she was successful, then the language used in creating the action would take on a specific meaning related to the intention. If not, the actors would have to invent or use other language. As an aside, it seems to me that early humans were basically pragmatic as the formality of reason was unavailable to them.

The ontological context of care as the primal way of Being in the world through the medium of language became, over time, a set of explicit instructions about the tasks at hand. As specific situations became sedimented in the language, the actors would have developed a sort of proto-ethics. See a large four-legged thing that moves, kill it for food. Early people knew what a bison was as it appears in their painting, but they would not have had a specific word for it. Some implicit “should” is involved here, but “should” is a word that would have arose much later. Care and a sense of ethical responsibility evolved together.

The most important aspect here is that the overall context for the way human beings existed in the world was care. They had the capacity to provide meaning to distinct objects that rose out of their perceptions of the world in which they were totally immersed. That capacity was manifest in language, spoken or otherwise. What needs they had were fundamental to their biological survival. The idea of need, even without the word to describe it, might have emerged along the way when one person saw another using a primitive tool to take care of something and thought it would be a good idea if she also had one too.

Other living creatures also had the same sort of instinctual “needs” for survival. What made human beings unique was their ability to intentionally pick out and focus their attention and actions on particular objects. Given the humans’ large cognitive powers and particular musculoskeletal endowment, language followed. Humans departed from the rest of the world, from being merely a material or transcendental presence. In Heidegger’s words: “The being that exists is man. Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but does not exist.” Existence is a special kind of “isness,” recognizable by care.

So what has happened to care as our basic understanding of what is it to exist as human beings? That’s the subject of anthropology and sociology, both of which subjects I have little formal background, but, as you all know, that has not stopped me from noodling about them. Does it matter? That’s a subject that is very important to consider in thinking about and acting toward flourishing. I will continue this thread in the next few posts.

Note: The capacity for complex language was a part of the hominid adaptation for a very long time. Differences in the use of complex language and its relative importance for the construction of social life as discernible in the paleoanthropological record have changed over the course of evolution, but the actual capacity for both the external and internal aspects of complex language cannot be used to make distinctions between species of the genus Homo. (L.A. Schepartz (1993) “Language And Modern Human Origins,” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 36:91-126.)

An Amazing Woman


Margaret Fuller

My wife has been reading a biography of Margaret Fuller (Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall), who led a truly amazing life as a member of the better known Concord transcendentalists. She lived in a way as proof that women could stand up to her better known peers, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, etc. Among the many accomplishments of her life was the establishment of a group of women holding regular “Conversations.” This was just one of her many actions to “transcend” the stronghold that men had over civic and other matters that affected how people lived. My wife read me a number of paragraphs and this one struck me as being remarkably prescient and still valid over 150 years later.

Margaret was a skeptic on the topic of progress and a proponent of reform. She found “incompleteness” in the reasoning of her more optimistic Coliseum Club colleagues, as well as the arguments presented at the Transcendental Club session on the same subject—”a meeting of gentlemen she had attended a few months since.” She allowed that society as a whole may have improved, but what of the individual? The very signs of progress others pointed to—innovations such as the railroad and the steamship—created or exacerbated “immense” want in the individual: “the diffusion of information is not necessarily the diffusion of knowledge” she explained, and “the triumph over matter does nor always or often lead to the triumph of Soul.” And “when it is easy for men to communicate with one another, they learn less from one another.” It was time to “reassert the claims of the individual man.” The signs were plain, in the increasing numbers of “men tired of materialism, rushing back into mysticism, weary of the useful, sighing for the beautiful. (p 114)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Using different words and phrases, Fuller is making the same critique of modernity that I do in my books. When technology is found between human actors and the world, we lose some sense of who we are. When technology is always found between us and the world, we lose almost all sense of what it means to be human. Although the technology we have today is greatly more powerful and omnipresent than it was in Fuller’s time, its influence is still the same, only stronger. Her statement about the “ease” of communicating mirrors my and many others criticisms of the shallowness that all the social media induce. It substitutes quantity for quality and reduces meaningfulness.

I would use only slightly different words to make her point about the “diffusion of information.” Given the enormous amount of information available to us today (Fuller could not have imagined the impact of the Internet, for example), we still lack understanding about the way the world works. Progress is increasingly elusive as signs of unsustainability are increasingly replacing the signs of “progress” characteristic of 18th and 19th century thinking.

The last few sentences in the extract from Marshall’s book speak to me about flourishing. I find it fascinating that Fuller saw signs of human emptiness amidst the riches that the rise of modernity had brought forth. I am not sure what she meant by the “claims of individual man,” but it sounds an awful lot like the existentialist search for individual “freedom,” the ultimate condition of human beings.

The last sentence in the quote could have been taken from the forthcoming book I have co-written with my colleagues of the spirituality in business project I have written about. Our book, Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business (forthcoming from Stanford University Business Press in August 2014), argues for the need to return a sense of the mystical to the humdrum world of business enterprises if both the employees and the firm as a whole are to flourish. The feeling of “weariness” was highlighted in a recent NYTimes column, “Why You Hate Work,” by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porathmay. Here’s the opening paragraph.

The way we’re working isn’t working. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.

I would say some of this about the world, itself, beyond the workplace. We are running on empty, maybe still on fumes, but clearly killing off the stuff that made us human in the first place. We are distracted to the point that time and life rush by without much meaning. Many argue that our hyper-consumerism is driven by a sense of emptiness. Not the stuff of flourishing. Maybe if Margaret Fuller had been a man, people would have listened more carefully and begun to make the fundamental changes we still must for flourishing to be a real possibility. Unfortunately for all of us, the voice of women is still, although louder, muted. Maybe that is why the most essential feature of flourishing, care, still lingers in the background of a masculine world culture.

(Image: Margaret Fuller)

Among the Missing

missing I am still getting settled for the summer and deeply into my reading. I will restart my posts shortly. If you have any thoughts about where I/we should head, send your comments to the email address at the bottom of the list of posts on the right-hand side. I found a wonderful quote from Erich Fromm this morning in James Carroll's column in the Boston Globe, “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning.” My posts may become even scarcer as the sun has begun to shine here in Maine.

Summer Reading



Habit and routine are great veils over our existence. As long as they remain securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit.

Now that I am fully relocated from Lexington to Maine for the elusive summer, I can get into my summer routines and habits. Two predominate: fishing and reading. The fish haven’t migrated far enough North yet, so I am largely relegated to reading. I brought up more than I usually can get through, but this year I have limited the subjects to two, so maybe I will go back with a sense of completion, usually missing. The two subjects are pretty heavy, but ones I have been nibbling about the edges for some time: existentialism and consciousness. I have this nagging sense of incompletion about my writing and hope to close the gap a little coming out of these topics. I also am thinking of giving a course on existentialism at my Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR).

The quote at the top comes from a book I am reading currently, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, by William Barrett. Written in 1962, it is still timely. As I begin to read in this topic, I increasingly realize that the central themes of my books on sustainability and flourishing have their roots here. My path has not followed a formal philosophical route, but it is very reassuring whenever I find the same arguments located there. As most of the works I have been reading say, there is no single definition of existentialism. It may be better thought about as a reaction to the rationalism that began with Plato and was amplified during the Enlightenment and still continues to dominate our modern Western world.

Simplifying the arguments I make in my writings, I claim that the sad state of the unsustainable world today is due to a mistaken view of what it means to be human and a related error in trying to describe the complex world through reductionist science. The modern scientistic view of the world out there provides the dominant view of human being. Individual human experience and development are subservient to the same kind of abstraction that works so well in explaining how sound waves work or why an apple falls from the tree. But it hollows out human existence and hides our most basic features from us. Modern rationalism seeks to find order in everything, expressing meaning by formulas and mathematical expression. But such meaning is emptied of the real human experience which, as Heidegger expressed, comes though language, not numbers. Language is the medium that carries the historic, sedimented experience of our species, not the abstract laws of science.

I would add another result that routine and habit veil from us. We are blind to all sorts of unintended consequences that are happening out of sight. We not only fail to ask ourselves fundamental questions about who we are as human beings, but also fail to reflect on those consequences of our habits that lie outside of our veils. Modern optimism in science and technology to deal with whatever untoward situations arise in the world keeps the blinders on.

As many others do, I strongly believe that these unintended consequences are growing so large that they are overwhelming the intended results of our habits and routines. Unless we pull back the veil, we will keep on doing exactly what we have been doing. Cultural life is conservative by nature. Our habits become evermore entrenched as we enact them. What a dilemma for us! How can we begin to turn around this trajectory?

Two possibilities immediately come to mind. We can do nothing until the system collapses, driven by either a natural upset (climate change, perhaps) or a human spasm (inequality, perhaps). Then we will have to find a new set of habits and routines that match the new world. Given that, at least in the modern world, we have invested so much in our current technological routines, we will have a hard time time coming up with new alternatives.

The second possibility is vastly different. In place of a sudden, traumatic lifting of the veil, we can slowly make it transparent by individual reflection. Start to question the validity of our habits, not from some theory, but simply because they no longer work. Does this process sound familiar? It means that each of us has to become a philosopher because reflection and questioning is what philosophers do. Existential philosophy seems particularly important here. The questions of greatest importance when the world stops working relate to what am I doing; what kind of existence am I experiencing. Is there something peculiar to being human that has been escaping me?

I am confident that such questioning will make a huge difference, because I already think I know where this line of inquiry will lead. It is to the place that is central to my work and explicitly exposed in Flourishing. We are human beings, as opposed to all other beings because we care about the question of what is is to be human and because our existence rests on care for the world. We have forgotten this in the hurly-burly, high-speed modern era. Care is what it takes to live in the world because to live in the world implies a connection to everything, but a particular kind of connection that sustains the system. When we lose the ethical responsibility that being connected implies, we leave the responsibility for maintaining the system up in the air, floating without an anchor.

So, by the end of the summer I hope to be much more articulate and convincing about what it takes to flourish. Barrett’s book is proving to be a great start. I used another of his books in a course I taught at HILR a few years ago. I am just getting to the part where he discusses a number individual existentialists that have contributed to the subject. So far he has taken great pains to situate the emergence of this branch of philosophy in the history of ideas.