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Special Glasses Are Not Needed for Virtual Reality

context matters

The idea of a virtual reality is a pretty hot topic these days. Googling for “virtual reality glasses” brings up about 100,000 hits. Google and Facebook have invested over $2 billion in acquiring part or all of a couple of leaders in the VR business. But why on Earth would anyone want to spend money to land in a virtual reality when we already exist in one. Our modern culture has created a reality that departs from whatever the real world is like. We live in that virtual world everyday, but have been lulled into thinking it much more precise than it is. The result is that we make a lot of mistakes as we go about our business, some of which are posing large threats to our continued existence.

The very idea of an objective world with fixed features and functions is a myth, created by the new scientists of the Enlightenment, but it is a very powerful myth, as Einstein noted: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” I never quite appreciated the power of Einstein’s aphorism until recently when I started thinking a lot about meaning and its centrality to human existence. Objectivity permits us to perform mental magic by removing the spatial and temporal context in which objects exist, thus endowing them with a timelessness and context-free set of rule-based functions.

It turned out that this was a wonderful new story when first invented. We learned all sorts of things about parts of the world around us and put that knowledge to work in the form of technology and rational rules for managing the newly found objects. The arbitrary rules that had come from religious dogma faded into the background. We were free at last! Most of the rules refer to inanimate objects, but similar rules were applied to human beings since we were considered to be objects like everything else, except that we also had a mind that could apprehend the objects and their rules.

Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher and scientist, rephrased Einstein’s quote in terms of what he called, “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” He was referring to the common mistake when one takes an abstract belief, concept describing some worldly thing, or opinion to stand for a “concrete” reality. His words were, “There is an error; but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.” His argument, similar to Einstein’s special relativity theory was,

[…] among the primary elements of nature as apprehended in our immediate experience, there is no element whatever which possesses this character of simple location. [… Instead,] I hold that by a process of constructive abstraction we can arrive at abstractions which are the simply located bits of material, and at other abstractions which are the minds included in the scientific scheme. Accordingly, the real error is an example of what I have termed: The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.

I put this abstruse quote in to emphasize a point I have been making in several of my recent posts. Whitehead is saying in his convoluted way that context is important to the way the world works. No object can be described without reference to the world it is embedded in. Another way to think about this is that the menu is not the meal. The menu is an example of virtual reality. We use it to imagine what the various choices will taste like, but, as all of you know, we then suffer from the fallacy of misplaced concreteness when the waitperson brings the food to the table.

There is no avoiding this result whenever we act on the basis of abstract, decontextualized knowledge. We cannot avoid using such knowledge because we cannot stop every time we are about to act and try to add the missing context back. We account for it by qualifying our actions as having some probability of matching our intentions, but we are unconscious about it. The new “virtual reality” business will reinforce our blindness by reinforcing the belief that present everyday experiences constitute reality, as contrasted to what we perceive through our Oculus goggles as virtual.

Most of the time we accept the outcomes and move on, but some of the errors accumulate and become problems on their own account. Inequality is one of those. Virtually every action in the economy fails in some way to meet the perfect market model that is used to analyze and manage it. Over time the errors become visible as some new problem. The same is true for well-being, a critical measure of how the political economy is doing. The use of indices of wealth or material assets cannot reflect one’s real life as they lack the context of that life.

Our society has stagnated in many ways. The economist Robert Gordon has just written a book that argues that the economic boom that extended from 1920 to 1970 is not to be repeated. The Republican candidates seeking the nomination for President shout that we have lost our way. Inequality is increasing. Our infrastructure is rotting. Part of this situation is the result of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Our models tell only partial truths about the real world in which we exist as individuals and as a cultural mass.

Fixing the glitches as they show up will not work. We cannot move forward as long as we live in this virtual reality. We must replace it with a vision of the world that comes closer to how it really works. For many others, and me this is the easy part. The better model for the world is that of complexity, which does a better job of representing its highly interconnected, non-linear nature. This can be done in an instant by merely switching the beliefs we hold. The hard part is to follow with the re-design of the present, modernist cultural structure that has been erected on old, reductionist foundations.

We cannot fully represent the world; it is far too complex to be reduced to models we can fit into our individual cognitive machinery or even the largest supercomputer, but we can do much better than our present reductionist methods permit. We can start by putting context back into the processes both individuals and collectives use to determine what we will do next. This means we must use methods of observation and inquiry that capture both the things we focus upon and their spatial, temporal situatedness. This means we need to stay connected long enough to begin to understand temporal behavior. Such is the essence of pragmatism, as I have written quite a bit. Pragmatic inquiries require a team of concerned people, each of which will bring a different lens and, thus, expose more of the context than an individual or group of single-minded individuals could. Groupthink is quite the opposite from the reflective processes of pragmatism.

To those who might find the pragmatic way interesting and promising, but wonder if it can be translated into everyday practices, I point out the example of the Toyota Production System, now emulated by many of the world’s leading companies. The TPS uses teams, equipped with practical tools to facilitate patient observation of systems that have broken down. They come to understand “root” causes, that is, parts of the system that may not be visible in the immediate space of the factory floor. The key to this method and others like it is the capturing of context and subsequent transforming it to practical understanding. Complexity will not permit this understanding to be reduced to simple rules, but what counts is the results, anyway. Additional examples can be found in the field of organizational learning.

Among my recent blog posts are several that deal with individual relationships. The same process requirements apply to individuals as to groups. The key to finding effective ways to co-exist with others is through patient, reflective observation and inquiry. The purpose is the same: to add context to the superficial appearance of one’s present surroundings. Some of the methods used in the TPS and similar processes involve nested questions. If one asks why a number of times in succession, the chances of alighting on a helpful piece of the context grow. Such inquiry can work for individuals as well as groups. The key here is to draw on what you have observed, not attempt to find some abstract theory to explain it.

Please note that what I write here is applicable to just about every persistent problem we face together or in our individual lives. I have wandered into this thinking in my quest to find ways to create flourishing, but it is much more general than that. Flourishing, itself, is the result of thinking about complexity. By definition, any measure of well-being is a kind of value. Our place on the scale shows where we are at some moment. We use a particular kind of conventional value today. There may be a name for these, but I am unaware of it, so I will coin my own label. I will call such values as GNP or wealth as derivative values. There always is some model or set of reductionist assumptions behind them. Being able to quantify any measure implies that some factors are included and some are not, that is, these values have been plucked out of context.

Flourishing is different from this kind of measure. It is technically an emergent property of a complex system. It is present or not depending on how the system is operating. It can come and go. It is qualitative and subject to whatever criteria the assessor(s) are using. It is tied to one’s existential state of being and so is an important way to discuss how well life is going. It involves both one’s biological and cultural context. It is a proxy for the interconnected tapestry of meaningful aspects of one’s life. It is imperfect, but much closer to reality that any abstract or decontextualized index.

I hope, at this point, you are thinking about reality, if even a little bit, and, beginning to accept the artificial or virtual nature of modern life. It is not that such a reality is good or bad; it simply is not how the “real’ world is. That fact matters to us as human beings. We are complex ourselves and exist in meaningful interactions with the real, complex world. When meaning fades, so does our human Being; we become mere parts of the world, acting in ignorance of our place in it. We have accepted that fact for hundreds of years, even calling it progress. Time to wake-up and regain the wonder of human Being. It was present to those that invented language at a time it represented encounters with that real world. We have all had moments when we would respond positively to the question, “Are you flourishing?” All it will take to start to extend those moments is to begin thinking about reality in the way I have been talking about and carry that way of thinking into your everyday lives. “Just say No” to the same old, same old way of thinking. Don’t expect instantaneous results, but look for small changes in your close relationships at home, at work, and everywhere else. See if those persistent problems start to disappear. When we add context back to our practical thinking, we begin to apprehend the real world that is our home and the source of meaning that is so central to our species.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 7, 2016 9:54 PM ::

Comments Please, But Read This First

spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of "recent posts" list on the right hand side. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 7, 2016 8:56 AM ::

A Postscript to the Previous Post

Tom Friedman raised a number of questions about the power of the social media in a recent op-ed column. Writing about a conversation he had with Wael Ghonim, who played a very important role in the Egyptian revolt. Friedman began with this question, “Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?” And then answered it.

Recently, an important voice answered this question with a big “ yes.” That voice was Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee whose anonymous Facebook page helped to launch the Tahrir Square revolution in early 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — but then failed to give birth to a true democratic alternative.

I recently noted Sherry Turkle’s negative response to the widespread use of mobile devices. She found, in her research, that such use diminished the capability of young people to hold meaningful conversations. The Friedman column makes the same point, but in a far different, but important setting. Ghonim, now working in the US, provides a number of reasons that the social media failed in coalescing the aroused people into a politically viable mass. The fifth item in his analysis is remarkable similar to Turkle’s view. Here is his response to Friedman’s question.

“First, we don’t know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people’s biases are now believed and spread among millions of people.” Second, “We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else. Third, online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. … It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.

“And fourth, it became really hard to change our opinions. Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet.”

Fifth, and most crucial, he said, “today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. … It’s as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.”

Technology interposes itself between people when it is being used. Communication devices, by their nature, interfere with the ability of the parties to be fully present, thereby excluding context and the development of meaningful relationships. Exactly what Ghonim observed.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 5, 2016 11:24 AM ::

In Memoriam

I note the passing of Nigel Roome, one of the pioneers in the business and environment academic world. Many fond memories. Here is a link.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 5, 2016 10:54 AM ::

Context Is the Key to Flourishing

Today, another long and complicated entry, but, for me, one in which many disparate ideas that have made my writing difficult seem to be coming together. I am beginning to see an orderly, explicable development of the ideas central to understanding flourishing, its critical importance, and its absence from today’s modern world.


I note the subject of context has started to appear with some regularity in this blog. And rightly so. It is a subject that is not directly addressed in my books, but should be. Our modern institutions are build on a foundation of acontextual or decontextualized knowledge; a huge inter-meshed set of data, formula, and rules that has been created and accumulated by taking some object or collection of objects out of its worldly context and applying the methods of science to discover these law-like “relationships.” I put relationships in quotes because I want to distinguish its use as the way we typically characterize cause and effect among these objectified objects from the kind of meaningful relationships we develop in the course of living within the experiential context of the world.

The single-most defining characteristic of our species is consciousness. Other species are aware of and react to the outside world, but are not conscious of it. Consciousness is our ability to focus on portions of the external phenomenal world and ascribe meaning to it. Meaning shows up in the stories we tell to express that consciousness. Meaning is expressed through language and always is contextual. The same objects that produce a particular story in one context may (and usually do) have a different story within a different context. Meaningfulness is, like consciousness, a central characteristic of human existence. Without it, we lose our uniqueness and wander the earth like other animals.

Context has two dimensions, time and space. The same set of objects take on different meanings at different historical moments because the way we interpret phenomena depends on the present horizon of past meanings, which horizon has changed since the last time we encountered that same phenomenal world. What might have been an effective set of actions earlier no longer produces what our intentions called for. This is the basis for Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Repetition of some abstract, acontextual rule-based actions is likely to have the same results even when the context and the intention has changed because something about the context is involved, but has been left out.

Modern life rests on a foundation of abstract knowledge. To the extent that abstractions can be generalized to apply in different spatial and temporal settings, they make reproducible cultural activities possible. Imagine how life would be if we had to stop and figure out what to do next at every turn. Most of our daily life shows up as actions based on acontextual rules we have acquired during our existence from early childhood to the present moment. There is a form of meaning in these rules since we can tell a story like, “I am conscious of (recognize) the outside moment as “telling” me a particular story, but without and end. The end is stored in that part of my memory that completes such stories in the form of intentional actions. I “know” how I want the future to turn out and act accordingly.

And, indeed, it does turn out that way much of the time. If we associate thinking with this process, it consists of recognizing (giving meaning to) the present, as whatever I am conscious of, and searching for and activating the matching ending stored in my memory. I wrote about this process in a previous blog post that seems worth repeating.

Awareness (consciousness of something), selection of a future state that involves what I have just focused on (intention), appropriate steps to get there, declaration (conscious or unconscious) that I have done it. And, then, one goes on to the next intentional act, indefinitely. Here’s the quote from Husserl I used in one of my earlier blogs.

In every action we know the goal in advance in the form of an anticipation that is “empty,” in the sense of vague, and lacking its proper “filling-in,” which will come with fulfillment. Nevertheless we strive toward such a goal and seek by our action to bring it step by step to concrete realization. (Husserl, E., Formale und tranzendentale Logik, Halle, Niemeyer, 1929.)

That which has become culturally routine behavior lacks an image of the future and is based on behavioral norms that perhaps once worked in bringing society closer to its implicit vision, but now are producing more and more negative unintended consequences and less and less movement towards the underlying ends.

Similarly, the process as conceived by another philosopher, Alfred Schutz, is paraphrased as:

Action, then, can be conceived of as a dialectical relationship between the present and the future. While it is grounded and to a degree constrained by experience and the past, it is still open to alternative possibilities; there are still elements of choice of actions. Perhaps there is not the complete unrestrained freedom of the existentialist, but simultaneously there is not the complete determinism suggested by ‘naturalistic’ social science. The major point is that the purpose of action is change: it is formulated to negate in some sense that which is existing.” (My emphasis)

Another great thinker, Gregory Bateson, connected these phenomenological ideas to what he saw as the primary reason human beings haven’t been able to put their big problems behind them. He wrote, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” I never quite understood this before, but now I see it as making the same argument I am making here. Relying only on acontextual bases for human action—the primary way that modern humans think/act— fails to capture the contextuality of the world.

Another way of making the same claim is to say that we act as if the world was nothing more than a context-free set of rules we have generated by our reductionist scientific methods. The world is, importantly, complex and behaves in ways that are not captured by these kinds of rules. Every situation is unique because the context is ever changing. As I wrote in the last blog, “Plato wrote. ‘You could not step twice in the same river (attributed to Heraclitus).’” If asked, we couch our expectations of the outcomes of our normal actions in probabilistic terms or simply as a matter of luck. Such statements are a tacit recognition that our models do not correspond to the world.

I have argued in all of my work that the persistent, growing problems that have shown up in modern cultures are the result of the disparity between how modern societies “think” and the way the world works, just as Bateson wrote. While we can characterize the differences in many ways, the single most critical, as I have been developing here, is the absence of context from the modern way of thinking.

Context, itself, is a word that reflects the process of consciousness, focusing on something within a larger body of sensory phenomena. Our focus, however, lacks the discriminating fineness of reductionist methods; we also capture a sense of parts of the world out there in which the parts we have focused on are embedded. The main players are always accompanied by the setting, not unlike the situation we observe while watching a play or movie. Context also has a historical dimension; we add a sense of what happened in similar situations in the past. The meaning of any such encounter with the world is much richer that the decontextualized story related only to the focal players. The story we would tell if asked to explain what is going on would be much richer.

Human action is always an interaction with the world, and the outcome always reflects that interaction. The success of our actions over time would be higher if our cognitive bases are more closely matched to the way that world works. This seems obvious to me, but is certainly arguable. Obvious or not, this assertion is the central grounding for my writings about sustainability (in the conventional sense) and flourishing. Other new ideas that follow are derivative of this argument. Contextuality remains a central concept in replacing the structure of modernity.

The importance of thinking in terms of a complex world follows. A complex system is any assemblage of elements for which predicting the future state requires information about its historical behavior, that is, understanding the context. Such systems can also be described in technical terms as behaving non-linearly, showing emergent and self-organizing behavior, flipping into new regimes, and so on. But how are we to create practical understanding of the messy, real systems connected to the problems we care about solving? The key is to use methods that are capable of creating context.

I have argued for a broad use of pragmatic methods, replacing the conventional use of scientific or rational methods. Following the above discussion, these methods are built to gather contextual as well as rule-like information about the system being studied. This is easier said than done, which fact makes patience an essential feature of any pragmatic investigation.

Another central feature of my work is the notion of Being as the proper model for human behavior against the modern model of Homo economicus. Here, too, I see context looming large. The idea of Being came from philosophers like Martin Heidegger and is exceedingly difficult to describe in everyday language. I, now, think that context can offer a way to understand it.

The modern way of living is largely decontextualized. Most of our actions, particularly in a society that is predominantly structured around markets, involve people interacting through transactions, that is, rule-based actions. The results of transactions, in general, are that you end having acquired something, hence the association with the “having’ mode of living. Being involves entering into relationships, interactions that possess contextual meaning, that occur in a context of a meaningful past. Relationships have a temporal sense tied to the entire duration of previous interactions. Context is created, in part, in the conversations that usually accompany a relationship.

Relational context is created in moments of no action, in the interruptions that can occur in the continuous flow of action between related actors. In these moments, reflection enables the latest part of the story (context) of that particular relationship to be added. Like pragmatic methods for collective context building, reflection is a critical process for individual context-building. In the rush that many describe as the typical behavioral pattern in the United States, little or no reflection is possible, so relationships fail to be created even in protracted periods of engagement. The use of technological devices to intermediate conversations interferes with context-building and becomes more transactional than relation-building.

In my last few blogs, I have written about caring, another word to describe actions that occur within a contextual horizon. Being, as a distinct mode of life, is one in which most actions occur within such a context. I will be writing more about these distinctions, critical for a world in which flourishing is a possibility. Today, what is important to take away is the centrality of context for such a world. Instead of focusing on Being and caring, you will be just as, perhaps even more, successful simply to think about how to introduce context into everyday living.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 3, 2016 4:04 PM ::

Why Choose Being Over Having

Note to readers: This blog digs deeply into the notion of flourishing and Being, and is not easy reading, but these ideas are essential for the transformation of our non-working culture. For those seeking to change our consumerist culture, new institutions and practices built on meaningful relationships are critical. The reasons for this are discussed here.


Erich Fromm’s provocative book title, To Have or to Be, captures the primary challenge to flourishing. Human cultures reflect the dominant beliefs and values of those populating them. Most other developed country’s cultures and ours are clearly in the having mode. As I wrote recently, market economies are built on transactions, the predominant process by which people acquire things. One gets to have things through exchanges. The value of what one has can be measured by what has given up in these exchanges.

Some things critical to flourishing are absent in transactions, per se, and in the institutional structures that enable them. But before looking for them, a few words about flourishing are necessary. Flourishing, unlike most conventional measures of well-being, refers to a continuum of states. Flourishing has a temporal characteristic. One may be flourishing at the moment when asked about it, but it would be incorrect to claim that it is present, unless the present state rests in a history of similar conditions. Since flourishing, in part, is a sign of attaining one’s potential, for humans, any assessment related to it must be made in the context of what is that potential.

For all living nonhuman beings, potential is expressed in their genes. A flower flourishes when it blooms and seeds the next generation. An animal flourishes when it adapts to its habitat and produces progeny to maintain the species. Social species add an additional feature; they flourish when they have become part of a community and take their place therein. Humans are such a social species.

Flourishing for humans has an additional dimension related to their capacity to create meaning through language. The mostly biological processes suffice for other species, except for a handful that possess some rudimentary linguistic capability. Flourishing, for humans, requires an assessment that life is not only biologically satisfactory, but also satisfactory in terms of some criteria of meaningfulness. This poses philosophical and practical problems because meaning is always dependent on the culture in which any human being is immersed, which brings me back to the opening sentence above. Is there really any real difference between having and being?

I agree with Fromm that Being is to be preferred to having. (It is a matter of which is dominant. Human life will always incorporate both.) I think there is a good reason for this, but to establish this will take some more argument. Modern, market-based societies rest ultimately on a model of the human species that has ruled our thinking since the Enlightenment; humans are insatiable, needing creatures always acting to maximize their allocable resources, that is, money in modern cultures. It follows that the accumulation of things, including money itself, will be the measure of how well one has done in life. So it is in the United States. Wealth is a measure of success, both at the individual and collective level. So, then, what’s wrong with having as a desirable mode of living? Quite a few issues turn out to detract and nullify this measure of human well-being.

One important consequence; there is no end point to having, so people find it hard to be satisfied with what they have, whether a great deal or very little. Surveys of well-being indicate that the majority of people are not satisfied with their lives. Inequality is another factor that negatively affects assessments of well-being. In a society where fairness or justice is a primary value, it is problematic to judge oneself as flourishing when so many others obviously are not. This fact renders the very criteria of wealth as questionable. Additionally, the processes that support having, that is, the political economy, are producing serious, negative, unintended consequences in the natural system. No need to enumerate them here; what matters is, like inequality, these impacts raise questions about the appropriateness of having/wealth as the primary measure of well-being.

Perhaps, the most important factor related to having is the model of human nature on which it is base. What if this model is wrong? Then, having would have no legs to stand on other than the power of persistent, deeply embedded cultural beliefs. Importantly, Adam Smith believed that human nature was based on empathy, a form of caring, long before he changed his mind and gave us the selfish model we still cling to. Being, as I will explain, seems to be much closer to the kind of creature we are, and, therefore, is a more relevant model on which to ground flourishing, as related to approaching or attaining some expression of potential.

It is not possible to discuss Being without introducing language as a unique human capability. Humans evolved physiologically and cognitively in such a way that they developed both the mental capacity to create and store meaningful representations of their experiences in the world in their brains and also gestural control, including speech, that enabled them to communicate these representations to others. Another way of describing this evolutionary process is to say that humans developed the capability of expressing their experiences in stories, thus, ascribing meaning to otherwise meaningless phenomena. Once the meaning of an otherwise indistinct object out there in the world was captured linguistically, the linguistic object, whether word or gesture, could be used to engage others in some intentional activity.

Meaningful actions became the central feature of human life. Communities arose out of the shared meanings that developed around shared activities. Humans could act out of these meanings, calling them forth from their memories. Intentionality naturally followed this development of language. Meaning appears when humans focus on some group of objects, set against a meaningless context. A “tree” appears out of the background because the viewer has discovered that a part of it is tasty. The expression of meaning in this case might have sounded like, “object with all sorts of arms and legs that has delicious round stones hanging from it.”

Of course all the words must have be created from earlier experiences. Meaning never appears out of the context of past experience. We process our perceptual experiences from a horizon of meaning we have accumulated up during the past. The horizon is continually changed by the experience of the present moment as a result. Life becomes an experience of constant movement forward in time. Plato wrote. “You could not step twice in the same river (attributed to Heraclitus).”

Another way of thinking about this unique process of ascribing meaning is to say that all meaningful stories about the world are owned by the person who has created them. They are unique to her, except when the same stories are held in common, having arisen from (repeated) shared experiences. This follows from the historical and contextual horizons that shape our interpretations of phenomenal perceptions. The shared meanings that develop among individuals, raised within a culture enable interactions for, without them, communications by gesture or speech would mimic the Biblical setting of Babel.

So, how does this connect to Being? Being refers to existing/acting within the stories one owns. Life moves forward in time through meaningful events. The sense of ownership comes with a sense of connectedness. This or that story is about my past experiences with these or those meaningful objects-out-there-in-the-world. If the objects are other human beings, connectedness translates into relatedness. By convention, we rarely use the term, relatedness, to describe our connection to non-human objects, but our meaningful experiences with them are similarly connected.

Another way of talking about these meaningful interactions is to say we care about what we are doing. The actions we take are shaped by the meaning from which the action arose. Caring reflects the meaning-giving story that always includes parts about me (the actor, and, also, the others (the targets of my intentions), and any other objects shaping the context. Caring comes from me and signals my intentions, but reflects the meaningful context that, most importantly, includes a record of the other(s) and my past history.

Without going into details, current neuroscience, at least the work of Antonio Damasio, is consistent with this explanation of caring. Damasio claims that the brain produces three selves in action. One is what he calls the autobiographical self, which shows up in action through meaningful acts based on one’s past experience. This is the self that learns over time to change the responses to previous recognized situations where actions did not produce satisfactory results.

Now, I can attempt to answer Fromm’s question, To Have or to be? The criterion I use is flourishing, as the achievement of a being’s potential. Being, as I (and others) have argued is the primordial way humans exist. For most of our time on Earth, we lived with language arising only out of our Being-in-the-(natural)-world; cultural artifacts were few, if any. To the extent that we survived and evolved, we flourished, as did other species. As humans settled and began to create cultures, other criteria to measure human well-being were invented. We find these in sacred books and in the works of Greek and later philosophers. Aristotle had a word for flourishing, eudaemonia, that he used to express what human aspirations should aim at.

But as these cultural neologisms arose, the basic caring existence had to compete with other cultural modes. By the time of the Enlightenment and the emergence of science and an associated objective (meaningless) world, this mode of existence all but disappeared. Classic economics, based on the model of human nature I mentioned earlier, drove the last nails into the coffin of Being. Should we be concerned about this? I say, “Yes indeed1” The connectedness inherent to Being is a real feature of the meaningful world. We ignore it at our peril, as we are doing. We live within, and are a part of, an interconnected, complex world. What we do in our collective societal efforts has consequences on that world.

If the collective opinion of all humans were that all is right with the world, there would be little basis for concern. That is hardly the case anywhere, especially in the United States. We are destabilizing the natural world, and we are not achieving our cultural goals. In a word, having is not working. Transactions with little or no context of reality, not surprisingly, are likely to create all kinds of unintended, and unobserved (until they grow very large) consequences. Being, on the other hand, will be conscious of changes in the context, and affords the ability to learn and adapt. In a complex world, both of these capabilities are critical. Complexity requires understanding, not objective knowledge. Interacting with complexity requires the same skills necessary for caring for people: reflection and empathy. To act such that your actions fit the needs of the other, whether a family member or the larger natural system of the Earth, you need to be able to observe and understand what is going on over there and interpret the results of your actions in that context.

Our rationality has evolved with the transactional nature of our cultural interactions. The more we have become havers; the better we have become at taking situations out of context and creating abstract, partial rules about what is going on. If we begin to act more out of Being and relationships, we will become better at generating meaning out of complexity, a giant step toward flourishing.

I need to add a short note. Being, as I am describing it, rests on an accumulation of meaning that is owned/generated by the actor. This corresponds to authentic (meaning). Meaning that is merely taken in from the general voice of a culture is inauthentic and will produce transactions only.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 1, 2016 8:34 PM ::

All the Political Blaming Misses the Point

finger pointing

Disappointment and anger directed toward what are claimed to be the failures of government to solve persistent social problems is misdirected. Government is not the culprit; the ineffectiveness lies in the way we think. We are stuck in a modernist mindset that sees the world as a big machine. When the machine sputters and fails us, we turn to the engineers and technocrats, and charge them to fix it. This is true whether the problem is deemed to arise from the systems of the government, private sector, natural world, or elsewhere. We tried to fix the financial system that broke down in 2008 by tightening regulations, We think we can mitigate the impact of climate change by changing our energy mix away from carbon.

No, we can’t. The problems that have captured our attention are the result of complexity at work. To address these we have to change the basic frame of our thinking from one based on the Enlightenment ideas about a mechanistic universe that we can come to know and control to a post-modern acknowledgement that the world is complex and is, in terms of the standard scientific method, unknowable. The global social/economic/environmental system is so highly interconnected and full of non-linear relationships that it cannot be reduced to a set of conventional rules, laws, and formulas. At any moment, the next instant cannot be predicted. Outcomes defy our models. We alternate between boom and bust, drought and flood. Great problems, like global warming or growing inequality are inevitable, unintended consequences of our normal societal structure.

When we are dealing with complexity, we have to heed the law of unintended consequences because the models we use to design our institutions and technological structures are, except for the simplest situations, imperfect replicas of the real world out there. The great power of science and technology rests on a methodology that takes the world apart and looks at one piece at a time, but that is not how that world works. It’s not the parts that matter as much as how they are interconnected to form a system. The failure of the design models, based on scientific knowledge, to precisely represent the world produces unintended outcomes, sometimes insignificant, but occasionally large and threatening, as it the case for climate change.

If the source of the problems we face is the failure of our scientific knowledge and technology to match reality, then it should be obvious, that we cannot rely on these tools to alleviate or obviate these problems. Institutions, like governments or markets, cannot fix the problems by simply identifying unitary causes and applying fixes. A flat tax, for example, could reduce some serious distortions and quirks in the present system, but risks creating new and unpredictable problems because the system is complex. Almost any proposal to fix an existing problem offered by the political sphere would fit this picture. The same is true of economists, aiming to fix market imperfections, but using an imprecise model of human behavior.

Technology also exhibits the law of unintended consequences. Devices, designed to do one thing, produce additional outcomes, some good but, often, some bad. This happens because the knowledge used to design the devices fails to represent the complete real context into which the device is to be introduced. Sherry Turkle, an MIT technology scholar, in a recent book, argues that the ubiquitousness and persistent use of mobile devices has negatively affected the ability of young people to engage in meaningful conversations. Other similar examples abound. The explosion of technological devices and personal applications has deepened our centuries-old optimism that science and technology will always rise to solve our persistent societal problems and keep us on the progressive path to perfection. We should be extra cautious, warned by outcomes that are not so aligned.

Is there an alternate way to proceed that holds the possibilities of avoiding the pitfalls of matching reductionist thinking to complexity? Yes, we have a very good example of an alternate way of framing these serious problems and dealing with them in the response to the Great Depression by the Roosevelt administrations. The approach Roosevelt and his team used to understand and address the terrible devastation of the collapse of the socio-economic system was pragmatic in nature. Pragmatism, which some call the only American-bred philosophy, is ideally suited to cope with complexity. Pragmatism rests on a methodology to slowly and patiently understand complexity and develop effective solutions to problems arising from it.

Contrary to the abstractive methods of science which require the investigators to isolate the subject of their inquiry, pragmatists directly interact with the system in play, trying one approach after another until they begin to see positive results. Large problems demand large teams of concerned seekers. Different points of view are subjected to questioning to avoid getting stuck on some ideologically pure approach. John Dewey, perhaps the greatest American pragmatist, saw this way of thinking and acting as the heart of democracy. Progress would come by continuous inquiries into the nature of the barriers to fully realizing critical American values, and testing the solutions as they emerge from the murk of complexity.

Whether conservative or liberal or of any other political ilk, blaming any of the major institutions of our society is misplaced and ineffective. The failures lie deeper in the modernist ideas about how the world works. Neither pole of the political spectrum will be successful as long as they claim to have answers based on some technocratic ideology. The possibility of effective solutions will arise only by working together, under a pragmatic governance regime. The current practice of casting blame on individuals for all our messes may win points, but deepens the misunderstanding of the nature of our most serious problems and prevents us from seeking solutions that might really work.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 29, 2016 3:58 PM ::

More about the Importance of Context

As a follow-up to the last post, I just read this op-ed piece by Timothy Egan, Egan is bemoaning the drastic shortening of human’s attenuation span.

In the information blur of last year, you may have overlooked news of our incredibly shrinking attention span. A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.

Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” I tried to read the entire 54-page report, but well, you know. Still, a quote from Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, jumped out at me. “The true scarce commodity” of the near future, he said, will be “human attention.”


As we shift our attention from one focus to another in rapid succession, two outcomes limit our ability to add meaning and context to our lives, and, consequently, to create a way of living that can produce flourishing. Context can be conceived as the filter by which we are able to make something distinct against a meaningless assemblage of phenomena. Meaning comes with context, and context is created by pauses in the rapid flow of information on the sense, during which the actor stops and related a story about what just happened to the brain where is it stored for some future time when it is recalled during a meaning act. Consciousness and attention are coupled. Consciousness is always consciousness of something that has currently captured our attention; whatever that is, it has been filtered out of the other sensory perceptions that were impinging on the body at that moment of consciousness.

If we lack context, we cannot build up meaningful stories when we decide to act. Meaning allows us to connect past experiences with our values. We can associate love, trust, admiration or any other quality with the immediate awareness of whatever has come into focus. Many of these qualities obviate the need to make instantaneous assessments of some utilitarian nature. When we do act in such context, we continue telling the story and enrich the meaning even more. Not all such actions will turn out positively but, in every case, we will add new chapters to the story already in our memory.

As I wrote in the last post, actions that arise from a contextual basis are meaningful in the sense of caring. They are based on a sense of prior engagement and a sense of connection to the other involved in the action. That other can be other humans, parts of the non-human world, the actor as a distinct human being, or images of a previous transcendent experience. As fundamentally social animals, we spend most of our times with other human beings. In our earliest days as Home sapiens, life was always entirely devoted to caring. It was a time that we created language as a tool to facilitate such interactions. Words and linguistic structure were means to tell stories to others as instructions for coordinating action. If one wished to act, it was necessary to provide a meaningful context: who should be involved, what was the intended outcome, why that was important, and so on. The richness of context and, consequently, meaning deepened as more words were added. Human beings have been often described as meaning-seeking animals.

Jumping a few dozen millennia to today, Egan’s article is one more in what I see as an increase in commentary about the thinness of modern life and the increasing pathologies that threaten human and non-human flourishing. In the last post, I pointed to dangers inherent in the growth of 1) markets as the appropriate means to coordination actions, and 2) technology as the medium for communication. Both fail to produce meaning in engagements with them, which failure can be attributed to the absence of reflective consciousness, the process by which we add to the stories in our brain.

Egan proposes a couple of remedies.

The first is gardening. You plant something in the cold, wet soil of the fall — tulip bulbs or garlic — and then you want to shout, “Grow!” Eight seconds later, nothing. Working the ground, there’s no instant gratification. The planting itself forces you to think in half-year-increments, or longer for trees and perennials. The mind drifts, from the chill of a dark day to a springtime of color. Hope, goes the Emily Dickinson poem, is the thing with feathers. But it’s also the thing that rises from a tiny seed, in its own sweet time.

The second is deep reading, especially in the hibernation months of winter. I’m nearly done with the second volume of William Manchester’s masterly biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion.” (O.K., I’m late to the book, Churchillians.) It’s zipping by. Next up is a new history of the Roman Empire.

The first is a marvelous thought. I often have used gardening in connection with complexity, a topic intimately related to the discussion above. Gardening requires that one build a context that informs actions along the way from seeding to fruition (flourishing). The same is true when dealing with any complex system and its challenges. Its outcomes come in, as Egan writes, “in its own sweet time.” Technological fixes tend to fail because those who would apply them fail to understand exactly that characteristic of complexity.

The second is also very thoughtful. Written texts are stories on paper that arise from the stories in the author’s bodies. The flow of words is produced by a continuous reflection of meaning in the author’s conscousness that is mirrored by the reader. Hermeneutics, the study of meaning in texts, aims at matching these two streams. As we read we attribute meaning, whether or not it matches the authors, which meaning then affects how we will interpret the next passage, or what we have previously read. If we are to get into a book, we must be able to focus attention for periods long enough to establish a continuing sense of what is on the pages. If we flit from one part to another in the sense of the short attention span that Egan bewails, the possibility of finding meaning is virtually nil.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 22, 2016 12:07 PM ::

What Makes a Society Run (Down)?


The social/political world is constituted by a myriad of distinct groups of people, roughly distinguishable by a handful of structural features. Sociologists provide us with a plethora of models that vary largely by enumerating the relative dominance of these features. I tend to follow the structuration model of Anthony Giddens that posits that societies differ according to their beliefs, norms, authority structures, and commonly used material resources. The success or effectiveness of different societies can be assessed by comparing the outcomes of societal action relative to some set of stated values.

In this blog post, I want to examine the relationship between the values and the kind of actions one would observe by standing outside and looking into the society. In a market economy, like the US, the dominant kind of actions to be seen is “transactions.” These are actions predicated on some sort of exchange system. “I will do this if you will do that for me.” “I will sell you this car if you will pay me $XXXX.” “I will operate this checkout station if you will pay me $YYY.” There are no contextual conditions needed between the two or more parties; that is, no existing relationships affect the transaction. This is the underlying basis for the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith.

If one looks only at the material economy of a society, this system of impersonal transactions seems to be working very well. In the aggregate, the quantity and value (in the marketplace) have grown in societies that build their institutional structures around transactions or exchanges. If, however, anyone, in this kind of society were to be asked, how they assess their life to be, they would measure up all the goods and services they have acquired through transactions and base their answers on the result. They would have difficulty providing answers related to the quality of their lives because qualities are usually emergent properties of systems; they are not produced in the material processes that conventionally comprise an economy. This is, indeed the case today in the industrialized world; the majority of respondents express dissatisfaction with their lives.

Human beings, alone among all living species, exist in a meaningful context. Meaning arises from our use of language to express us and to coordinate our actions with others. Meaning arises in the stories we tell about our experiences. The actor is always the central character of these stories. Meaning is self-referential. I cannot say what some event or action means to someone else. Meaning is historical and changes as experience accumulates in one’s memory. Meaning can arise from two sources: one is the stories that actors weave out of their own experiential perceptions; the other through the adoption of stories told by others, including the impersonal cultural voice, the “they” that expresses societal norms.

This latter source of “meaning” leads to inauthentic behavior. After 9/11, President Bush tried to restore normality to societal life by exhorting the public to “Go Shopping.” Conversely, actions that come out of one’s own story are authentic. Although this difference is critical, it is, in practice, frequently difficult to locate the source of the immediate context for action. Recognition of which type of behavior is being exhibited is best developed by observations over long time periods.

So far this discussion about meaning is prelude for the next part of my argument. I argue that transactional actions do not produce existential satisfaction, which I will now define. Existential satisfaction is an experience in which a human Being assesses that he or she is living up to his or her full biological and cultural potential. Like meaning, satisfaction is historically grounded and represents a reflection, not of some singular action, but of the continuity of experience. Existential satisfaction is grounded in actions that arise out of the historical context of meaning, associated with the particular action. I use “flourishing” to describe this satisfying mode of existence.

Flourishing is the result of a different kind of interaction in which the actors are tied into a context of relationship. I will call these actions, relational or reciprocal. The meaningful presence of the other, the target of the intended action, is a necessary precursor to the action. Such interactions come with an already present story that provides a context for the intended action. In most cases the necessary preconditions for action, such as trust, are already part of the story. This kind of action also can be labeled as caring. Caring actions are those directed to another (including the actor as a target) that are intended to supply something missing from the other. What is deemed to be missing arises out of an empathetic interaction with the other at the time or out a memory of a prior history.

Caring actions are authentic and existentially satisfying to both parties. They are dependent on the presence of an experiential context that establishes a meaningful relationship. That context is generally created through an extended set of interactions and the linguistic interchange (conversation) that accompanies them. Transactions usually lack such a context and the parties have little or no history of interactions. The context necessary to initiate action, in these cases, comes from a generalized sense of what the cultural voice would say. It should be obvious that such a context cannot provide the richness of meaning that comes from an established relationship. Actions taken on the basis of such abstract or generalized contexts often turn out to be unsatisfying, leading to a high level of societal dissatisfaction.

Such is the case in the US today. The majority of the people are unhappy with the ways life is going for them. Such unhappiness is easily converted to anger, as we are seeing in the current Republican nominating process. Michael Sandel has written an excellent critique of the limits of the market on his book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The hegemony of market transactions is a large part of that malaise, but is not the only cause. Sherry Turkle, an MIT scholar who studies technology, has recently published a book that sees a dark side to all the ubiquitous technology in our hands, but particular as young people are using it. The book was reviewed in the NY Times by Jonathan Franzen, who wrote about it:

Her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” extends her critique [from her previous book, Alone Together,] with less emphasis on robots and more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects. She takes their dissatisfaction as a hopeful sign, and her book is straightforwardly a call to arms: Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-¬≠reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place. As in “Alone Together,” Turkle’s argument derives its power from the breadth of her research and the acuity of her psychological insight. The people she interviews have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them. The likably idealized selves that they’ve created with social media leave their real selves all the more isolated. They communicate incessantly but are afraid of face-to-face conversations; they worry, often nostalgically, that they’re missing out on something fundamental.

Her central theme is the loss of conversational capabilities created by the context-free nature of communicating with these devices. Context and, subsequently, meaning require capturing the presence of the other and reflecting on the experience. The meaning comes from whatever story the actor adds to his or her memory, which memory can serve as the background for the next encounter with the other.

Our modern society is addicted to the use of technology and to markets. I have written quite extensively of the addiction to technology and its unintended consequences in creating unsustainability and, as Turkle writes, the diminishment of relations and the rise of dissatisfaction. Markets produce the same outcome of diminished relationships. Both are related to the modernist idea that the world is just a complicated machine with all the parts connected by functional, objective laws and rules. It should be quickly clear that such a world cannot produce meaning; everything in this model is simply there.

Flourishing arises only in a world where meaning motivates human action. Purely utilitarian transactions are important, as modern life demands that we possess and consume goods essentially available only in the marketplace, but are insufficient to provide existential satisfaction. The creation of meaning rests on reflective competence, that is, the ability to make and retain stories about what we experience. No matter how the brain actually maintains memory, our consciousness of it comes through language and images.

Turkle recognizes the importance of this and the threat that increasing reliance of “technology” poses. If we want to work toward a flourishing, rather than an affluent, efficient, society, it will be essential to actively address this problem. The solutions are not to throw out either the market or technology; that is virtually impossible. Countervailing means to reduce the dehumanizing aspects have to be introduced. Turkle’s book poses a number of initiatives, individual and collective. My work also is directed at adding practices that can counterbalance the inevitable consequences of modernity.

As I finish this post, I observe it is pretty dense, but the cause of the malaise in the modern world is very deeply embedded below the surface of culture. It takes a conversation with yourself in which all the cul-de-sacs in one’s thinking are exposed. If we do not take the effort to expose the believe structure that provides the ground for our culturally inauthentic behaviors, we are pretty much doomed to continue on the same trajectory that has reversed the earlier arrow of “progress.”

My wife is downstairs watching one of her favorite movies, Howards End, based on a novel by E. M. Forster. It is a wonderful story about the unfolding of an encounter of members of three English social classes at the beginning of the 20th century. The epigraph in the novel is the mysterious phrase. “Only connect …? It is repeated as “Only Connect!” in the story, itself. For me, it is one of the most powerful statements of the critical importance of relations in any culture where social artifacts have taken on hegemonic values.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 21, 2016 9:53 PM ::

The Absence of Care


I have had lots of time to think about what’s happening out there in the world as I am pretty much housebound for a few more weeks until my new knee tells me it’s OK to get behind the wheel. The political campaigns have captured much of the news, along with extreme weather and extremist terror events. Both the Republican and the Democratic races are full of negative name-calling and widely diverse policies. The Republicans, in general, are being characterized as appealing to an angry and disenchanted with government electorate. I see a very different dichotomy between the two parties that seems to capture their central philosophies more clearly. One party cares about caring; the other does not. I do not have to tell you which is which.

I am quite stunned by how comprehensively this feature encompasses the main arguments being made. One talks about a wall and the exclusion of many people already living within our borders and contributing to our general welfare from the economy and the ballot box. The needs of many that have been left out by the exclusionary policies of the past are generally being ignored. Access to weapons whose only purpose is to kill people, the antithesis of caring, is a central feature.

On the other side, we hear about inclusionary policies that would make it easier for workers to care for themselves. The point of this blog post is not to do a point-by-point comparison of the two opposing party’s rhetoric and promises. I want to focus on the theme of care. I, as I so often do, will draw heavily from a couple of oped pieces in the 1/10/2016 “New York Times Sunday Review.” While not appearing to have much to do with one another, I will argue that they are intimately linked. The first is a piece, “You Don’t Need More Free Time,” about how we Americans think more free time will bring more happiness, by Christobal Young. Young argues that this sense is incorrect.

AMERICANS work some of the longest hours in the Western world, and many struggle to achieve a healthy balance between work and life. As a result, there is an understandable tendency to assume that the problem we face is one of quantity: We simply do not have enough free time. “If I could just get a few more hours off work each week,” you might think, “I would be happier.”

This may be true. But the situation, I believe, is more complicated than that. As I discovered in a study that I published with my colleague Chaeyoon Lim in the journal Sociological Science, it’s not just that we have a shortage of free time; it’s also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones. We face a problem, in other words, of coordination (emphasis in the original). Work-life balance is not something that you can solve on your own.

I’ll return to this in a few minutes, but, first, the second article, another oped piece. This one was by Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Heritage Foundation, titled, “To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death.” Brooks argues that thinking about one’s mortality leads to a better life.

WANT a better 2016? Try thinking more about your impending demise.

Years ago on a visit to Thailand, I was surprised to learn that Buddhist monks often contemplate the photos of corpses in various stages of decay. The Buddha himself recommended corpse meditation. “This body, too,” students were taught to say about their own bodies, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”

Paradoxically, this meditation on death is intended as a key to better living. It makes disciples aware of the transitory nature of their own physical lives and stimulates a realignment between momentary desires and existential goals. In other words, it makes one ask, “Am I making the right use of my scarce and precious life?”

I will excuse you if you do not immediately see a connection between these two articles, but will try to convince you that there is an important link. That link is care. Brooks tells us that we should live as if this year was going to be our last, spending more time on activities that are meaningful to us. Just saying no to time wasting activities is not enough. He writes, “The secret is not simply a resolution to stop wasting time, however. It is to find a systematic way to raise the scarcity of time to our consciousness.” In my own words, I interpret Brooks as saying, when you face the inevitability of your ultimate death, you will start doing more of the things you care about. He quotes work by Daniel Kahneman showing people misallocate their time, spending less on activities that deem truly satisfying than on things like watching television.

While Brooks got his inspiration from Buddhist monks, there are sources right here in our Western tradition that make the same argument. Using the philosophical language of Heidegger and others, Brooks is pointing to authentic behavior, as opposed to inauthentic. Heidegger argues that one, upon facing the finiteness of life, can begin to exist in an authentic, caring mode, making choices coming from inside. Otherwise, inauthentic behavior conforms to social norms, doing whatever, “They say is the right thing to do,” like watching the tube. Caring comprises those activities that provide existential meaning to life, that is, that make you aware of your humanness.

The connection to the other article comes through the word, coordination. The key is in this phrase, “[I]t’s not just that we have a shortage of free time; it’s also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones.” Again, what is being discussed is authentic, caring activities. Caring is always aligned between what we sense is needed over there and what we, then, intend to do about it. I think this article is too dismissive of work as unsatisfying, seeking satisfaction only in free time. These categories are arbitrary. An alien, looking at a society could not say what was work and what was free time.

If there is a solution to the lack of coordination that Young writes about, it is not, as he says, in simply expanding the non-working hours. New caring institutions must be established where people can enter in authentic activities interacting with themselves, others, and with the world. I have presented such a categorization of care in my books and on this blog. The metrics being used by the sources for these articles tend to focus on satisfaction as an instantaneous sense of well-being, as in “I felt good just after I did X.” One does X because one feels good doing it, but existential well-being, or flourishing, as I call it, is not some such fleeting activity or assessment. Authenticity and caring leave a rooted sense of satisfaction in place, along with a sense that this feeling must be sustained by continuing to enter into caring actions.

Young implies that today’s workplace does not offer much, if any, possibility for authentic action. Work for almost everybody means conforming to a set of rules and norms, designed to produce whatever the organization is supposed to produce. But there is one way to find authentic satisfaction in work. If you see work as a means to provide the wherewithal to take care of whatever is meaningful in your life, its rule-bound nature can be better accepted. Also the workplace can be seen as a source of caring toward other workers and even the work itself, if viewed as enabling the customers to care/

I recognize that this is not the picture of the typical company anywhere in the world. Workers are generally highly dissatisfied all over the globe. Marx observed this in his studies of capitalism, but there is no fundamental barriers to creating a workspace based on care. That is one of the central messages of the book, Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business, written by a team, including me, at The Weatherhead School of Management. Existential satisfaction shows up as flourishing. It is an expression of human Being, acting out of care. It can occur anyplace, but only if the institutional setting has been created to enable it. Care is always intentional, coming after a connection to someone or something has been established. Care is empathic, focused on the immediate situation of the other.

Writers, like Young and Brooks, have begun to observe what is missing from life in today’s transactional economies, but are too quick to base their analyses on psychological or sociological models. It takes some deeper, more reflective work to discover that the malaise is existential, representing the gap between the diminished, scientistic model of the human species and the real essence of human Being.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 11, 2016 3:34 PM ::