May 2016 Archives

Lost for Words


lost for words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rooting Flourishing in Reality (Cont'd)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dogma, of Any Variety, Is Still Dogma



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.

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